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Cincinnati Scene Setter, August 15

Andrew Burton



Austin Mattus -- Tennis With An Accent

Greetings from Cincinnati!

I blame Karen Khachanov.

Khachanov stepped to the line Wednesday evening to serve out set 1 against Nick Kyrgios leading 5-3. Kyrgios was out of sorts, struggling with a sore right leg and erratic timing: missing on 7 of his first 9 serves, Kyrgios had launched a ball out of the stadium, earning a code violation before the fourth game was finished. Four games later, Kyrgios had made 16 unforced errors to Khachanov’s 1.

Khachanov proceeded to double fault, hit two routine groundstroke errors, then watched helplessly as Kyrgios smoked a forehand winner. The match was back on serve. Kyrgios took the ensuing tiebreak easily, and told the trainer he’d have retired from the match if Khachanov had served out the set – and by Nick’s account, he hadn’t had to do anything. Why was he still here? His leg hurt.

Karen Khachanov did turn the tie around, winning the next two sets 7-6 6-2, but no-one is talking about the play. Khachanov played a solid match – his returns were excellent, and he moved the ball around well, and crucially, he didn’t allow an opponent’s struggles – physical or mental – to derail him.

So, we have to talk about Nick, I guess.

What happened last night was as predictable – as foreseeable – as the thunderstorm that opened up above Center Court the night before. I’d tracked that storm on my weather radar, and I could see the rain coming in 15 minutes before it got here. Sometimes you know something’s going to happen, you just don’t know exactly when it’ll come.

If Karen Khachanov had served out set 1 yesterday and Nick Kyrgios had retired hurt, the storm would still have come in – possibly in New York, or Beijing, or Shanghai, or some other location. It has been coming for a long while. The storm didn’t break in Washington, or Montreal, and it happened to break here.

The sequence of events isn’t that remarkable, for a Kyrgios match: at 5-5 in set 2, Kyrgios took issue with how rapidly Fergus Murphy, the chair umpire, reset the shot clock. There were no breaks in the set: Khachanov played a better tiebreak, and took it 7-4. Kyrgios walked to his chair and berated Murphy from his chair, earning a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct. Kyrgios then asked for a bathroom break, walked off court holding a pair of racquets; he walked 20 yards beyond the court, smashed the racquets (on camera) and walked back onto the court.

It was, as Tennis Twitter, reported, the stuff of a Gold Badge Umpire test paper – “what would you do if…” Fergus called the situation in to the supervisor, and was told “we didn’t see it.” Play resumed, though not before Nick earned a time violation as receiver for holding up play while he regripped a racquet.

Khachanov broke at 2-3 on a Kyrgios double fault followed by a forward tweener half volley in the net, and earned a second break in the final game which was effectively a towel thrown into the ring. The two players had a respectful handshake, but Kyrgios threw more insults at Murphy, appeared to spit in his direction and didn’t shake his hand. The match was done, but the social media and ATP inquest follows.

What to say?

I wrote about the media response to Kyrgios in Cincinnati last year. This year, as I said above, I came to Cincinnati knowing the storm was coming. Kyrgios is likely the third ATP player behind Federer and Djokovic in terms of putting bums on seats, and the crowd comes hoping to be entertained, to be excited, to see something different – and let’s be honest, many of them are here for some kind of Kyrgios meltdown, just as they came to see a McEnroe explosion.

Then when it happens, it’s so easy to run to the moral high ground – we’re shocked, shocked, that Nick Kyrgios didn’t live up to the highest traditions of the sport! But we knew this was coming.

There will be columns. There will be questions to senior players like Djokovic and Federer. There will be a fine, and likely a suspension. There absolutely should be consequences to a player abusing an official, whether it’s Nick Kyrgios, Serena Williams or any star player you want to name. All sports do need to have rules and codes, and enforce them.

Fergus Murphy came in for criticism, but he won’t get any from me. The two TennisTV commentators pointed out that Murphy’s options were very limited by the way his colleague, Mohamed Lahyani, was disciplined last year in New York for attempting to talk sympathetically to Kyrgios during a match. All umpires have to find a balance on judgement calls over strict enforcement to the letter vs allowing a player to have a safety valve for strong emotions. Carlos Ramos could tell you something about that too.

Consistency is a virtue, but so is sympathy – a sympathetic understanding of what’s happening in a match, knowing when to talk softly and when to use the big stick. I fear that some of the fall out from yesterday will be more automatic penalties and less human interaction between players and chair umpires.

For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t think I have “the answers.” I think these questions speak to what kind of sport we want to see in the next decade.

It’s up to Kyrgios if he plays a prominent part in the next chapters that are written – as a bete noire, or a person who did live up to his ability and talent. He’s said to be a popular person in the locker room, but players hope to face an opponent on court, not someone working his way through an inner crisis. And honestly, I don’t have any useful counsel to offer there, either.

The sense that I get – and I typically hate psychoanalyzing players I don’t know – is that Kyrgios didn’t want to be out there last night, particularly after picking up a leg injury, and this is part of his wider conflict about being an elite tennis player. The outer truculence and petulance is an expression of a very stressful inner battle.

We have a full order of play today, with ATP stars Federer and Djokovic on Center. Court placements have been odd today; Venus Williams and American rising star Sofia Kenin get Center Court assignments, but WTA no 1 seed Ashleigh Barty plays on Grandstand and new WTA no 1 Naomi Osaka has been put on Court 10(!).

Enjoy today’s tennis!

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