What does Nick Kyrgios want, and will the punishment benefit him?

by: Peter Bodo | October 18, 2016

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It will be fascinating to see how Nick Kyrgios responds—on the court and off—in 2017. (AP)

What can be done about Nick Kyrgios?

If that isn’t the question on everyone’s mind, then this one is: Was the punishment levied upon the tantrum-and-match throwing, ultra-talented wild child of the ATP tour for his outrageous actions in Shanghai last week an appropriate, fair response?

It’s doubtful that anyone other than a gaga Kyrgios fan would find the eight-week ban too stiff a penalty. But judging by the comments on social media and various web threads, many feel that the response was too lenient. And that’s mainly because of the caveat that could reduce the ban to a mere three tournament weeks at a time when Kyrgios wasn’t planning on playing too much tennis, anyway. In 2015, the 21-year-old Aussie played just one event after Shanghai: He lost in the first round of the failed ATP 250 event in Valencia.

Of course, there are those fines: $16,500 levied immediately after Kyrgios tanked his second-round match in Shanghai. (Among other infractions, Kyrgios was docked for taunting a spectator who let Kyrgios know that he hadn’t paid good money to watch a tank job.) But that’s chump change to a guy who is already making big bucks, if not winning big titles. The additional $25,000 fine levied by the ATP, announced at the same time as the suspension, might have gotten Kyrgios’ attention, but probably not for long.

Maybe it’s time to ask WWRLD? (What Would Rod Laver Do?)

Cliff Drysdale, who is actually a contemporary of Laver (more or less) and a founding father and former president of the ATP, is in his early 70s but is still a strong presence as a television commentator for ESPN. He describes himself as “old school.” But, Drysdale says, he has always appreciated what the controversial showmen bring to the tennis table. Drysdale believes that the ATP response was appropriate.

“But it has to be made clear,” he told me, “and there has to be a real commitment by the ATP that if this happens again, there will be a ban of a year or longer.”

Patrick McEnroe, who often shares the booth with Drysdale, just turned 50. He’s from a different generation, and tends to take a strong, conservative position on most issues. I asked McEnroe, the former U.S. Davis Cup captain, if he felt that the punitive action was appropriate. He endorsed the ATP’s actions without hesitation, partly because of the suspension’s carrot-and-stick, two-part structure.

“The kid has a lot to offer,” McEnroe told me. “But he has some serious issues that go beyond what we’re accustomed to.”

McEnroe’s persona is generally stern. But he seems to feel for Kyrgios in a way that many pundits and fans do not. He doesn’t characterize Kyrgios’ behavior in Shanghai as the actions of a spoiled brat who needs to be read the riot act, or dismiss it as mere show biz. He sees Kyrgios’ meltdown as a plea for help.

“I can’t see how you have a rational discussion about this,” McEnroe said, “because it’s just so nuts what he did.”

Recalling his days as a player on the tour, he continued: “A lot of us have been in that situation. You’re tired. Fried. You just want to go home somehow. But you go out there and try, even if you know you’re not into it, or you’re going to lose. What he did showed such complete disdain that you know there are issues there underneath it. To me, that’s a call for help.”

What would McEnroe do if Kyrgios called him up and sought his advice?

“The first thing I would ask him is what he wants,” McEnroe said. “When a kid does something so out of bounds, then the first thing you have to do is listen. To me, this isn’t about tennis. Not at all.”

Those sentiments line up with the ATP’s two-part reaction to Kyrgios’ Shanghai breakdown. The suspension will be reduced to three tournament weeks “…upon agreement that the player enters a plan of care under the direction of a Sports Psychologist, or an equivalent plan approved by ATP.”

To many, that seemed like a cop out by the ATP—a way to suspend Kyrgios without really suspending him.  But if McEnroe’s analysis is accurate, the ATP’s action is pitch-perfect.

True, there is a lot of wiggle room in the reduction proposal. Kyrgios can accept the terms of the reduction and basically yawn his way through whatever professional help he is obliged to accept. But the pride of young, celebrated, testosterone-loaded athletes is usually off the charts. It will take some humility, and perhaps greater self-knowledge than he currently possesses, for Kyrgios to accept the offer.

Should Kyrgios ignore the reduction caveat, he will remain suspended until the day before the start of the Australian Open. That’s a risk, even if Kyrgios probably didn’t plan on much official prep work. Last year he played just one Australian Open tune-up. Thanks to a first-round loss in Sydney, he went into the Australian Open with just one ATP match under his belt and still made the quarters.

The kind of talent that enabled Kyrgios to do that is also the kind that may whisper to him that he “don’t need no stinking sports psychologist”; that he can ride out the current storm, like he weathered those in the past, on the back of his talent.

Kyrgios has apologized for his antics, both in the immediate aftermath and in a more formal fashion with a statement issued Monday.

“I do understand and respect the decision by the ATP,” the statement read, “and I will use this time off to improve on and off the court. I am truly sorry and look forward to returning in 2017.”

When the day of his return arrives, a new question will hover over him: Just how much did he improve, and in what specific way? Whatever he decides about the length of his suspension, we’ll have to wait until the New Year for answers on that one.

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