Matt Zemek

Well-known tennis analyst Brad Gilbert sometimes refers to a blowout tennis match as an instance of “taking him to the woodshed.” The expression is familiar in American vernacular — I can’t speak to whether Europeans enjoy an easy familiarity with the expession.

At any rate, a “shed” can be a place for beatdowns such as the one Nick Kyrgios handed to Fabio Fognini on Monday at the Miami Open, but the word “shed” is also a verb which refers to the process of removing something from one’s person or possession.

This can be good, or it can be bad. Kyrgios chose the good form of the verb “shed,” while Fognini chose the bad one. 

Kyrgios — who, like all young athletes, needs time and space in which to grow (and more specifically, to be ALLOWED to grow by the public) — is in the process of shedding his bad-boy image. This doesn’t mean that part of him is gone forever, that he has fully flushed it out of his system. This also doesn’t mean that it is inherently bad for him to emote on court. It is and will be a long-term process for Kyrgios to more finely harness his emotions, but he can certainly channel them into effective tennis. Last year’s memorable Miami semifinal against Roger Federer showed as much. That was a heated and contentious match in a highly emotional environment, and Kyrgios stayed the course before losing by the smallest of margins in a final-set tiebreaker. 

When I say that Kyrgios is shedding his bad-boy image, I am pointing to two details in particular: First and foremost, there is a much more complicated and layered person behind a public persona, or the public events which easily and understandably define a public figure’s reputation in the eyes of a mass audience. Judging a book by its highly visible cover might be okay once in a great while, but for young athletes, it is way too early to assign firm or binding verdicts about behavior or the quality of the person behind the scenes. Sports are emotional, and youth athletes struggle to calibrate their emotions. Fame and fortune are not easy to handle, and young people with fame and fortune are inevitably forced to deal with those parts of public life. It is never a guarantee that the young athlete — or rock star, or actor — will cope well with an abundance of temptations and distractions.

Kyrgios — like anyone in his position — deserves empathy, space and the lack of quick-trigger judgments.

The other important detail about this notion of “shedding a bad-boy image” is that it not some cynical ploy… or at least, the inclination to THINK it is a cynical ploy is misplaced at this early stage in Kyrgios’s tennis life.

Why say this? For one thing, Kyrgios’s commitments to both Davis Cup and Laver Cup reveal a boyish enthusiasm for tennis. Do Kyrgios’s involvements reflect a certain degree of public political skill? Perhaps… but those are the kinds of events tennis players do not have to partake in if they don’t want to. It is widely understood in the sport that taking care of a singles career and its professional responsibilities — chiefly, making money and winning championships — must come first. To be sure, Kyrgios has not done a great job of striking the right balance in terms of protecting his aspirations and furthering his goals, but that is more the product of being young and not knowing the right formula just yet. It is not a reflection of his attitude. Many much calmer players of a similar age are learning the same lessons. Dominic Thiem, a few years older than Kyrgios, still has a lot to learn about how to manage a tennis schedule and the rigors of the tour from one part of the season to the next.

The other aspect of Kyrgios shedding his bad-boy image which is worth amplifying: He both spoke to and hit with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the community so deeply affected by the February shooting which has risen to the surface of American politics.

Kyrgios — the man who shows genuine enthusiasm for tennis in various contexts — appeared to be very much at home, comfortable in his own skin, in those visits with MSD High School students. The proper point of emphasis is not that other players didn’t make such a visit, but that Kyrgios DID. It takes effort to hit a tennis ball well and consistently, and it also takes effort to make generous gestures to others. Kyrgios did, and he should  be recognized for it. This doesn’t make him a hero or a fully converted man, but it makes him a person who is sincerely trying to get better, to shed some of his baggage.

On the other side of the divide lies Fabio Fognini — he sheds dollars for the fines he incurs, and he sheds racquets when things go badly for him. What he has done at this Miami tournament is shed a lot of rankings points after making the semifinals last year. Fognini has always displayed huge talent, but maintaining a foothold in the upper reaches of the sport has been conspicuously difficult for him. It’s not as though he was favored to beat Kyrgios — he wasn’t — but the match was instructive in that Kyrgios, with a history of hotheaded moments, might be cooling down and slowly evolving into the player many think he can be.

Fognini, at this stage of his career, shows no signs  of making a late-stage evolution into a Stan Wawrinka-like beast who can pick off an occasional major title. Fognini’s Mount Vesuvius moments still get the better of him. They did on Monday, and they still do with a consistency far greater than other players.

Kyrgios might be shedding his volatility, while Fognini merely sheds ranking points. Such are the two very different directions of players in Miami who have both battled their tempers in the past.

Only one shows signs of moving forward, and it isn’t the older player. Nick Kyrgios is making Miami a place where he knows how to succeed, on and off the court.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: