Thursday, August 13, 2015

A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE ON NICK KYRGIOS...PLEASE

Okay, I'll take the bait - I am a tennis fan after all, and even the silly stuff gets my ears perked up like a German Shepherd.  And if you're reading this, you've heard of the comment Kyrgios made on court last night during his injury driven victory over Stan Wawrinka.  If you missed it, here's a link to as much of the story as you can handle - believe me.  It's not the worst thing I've ever heard in the heat of a sporting battle, but as far as tennis goes, he may as well have hurled the n-word.

Don't get me wrong - he's been a right pain in the arse for a while now, and deserves the derision he's on the wrong end of, but this idea that he should be punished for a stupid locker room dig at Wawrkina (and Vekic, for that matter) strikes me as being more than a bit over the top.  And this got me thinking:  what is the worst thing I've ever heard on a tennis court?  Depends on your definition of "the worst", I suppose.  I've been watching tennis for 30+ years, and I've seen a lot - and that may be one of the cattiest things I've heard from player to player - but is it the worst?  I don't know.  

You be the judge...

Davis Cup 1987 - John McEnroe to a Linesman

This one may surprise you, because we've all heard the worst of the worst at Wimbledon and the US Open where McEnroe has told umpires and linesman everything from:

"You guys are the absolute pits of the world, you know that?" 

to

"...this guy's an incompetent fool..." 

to 

"What do you want, Mr....whatever your name is...Mr. Incompetent?"

to

"You're a disgrace, and everyone here is a disgrace..." 

to 

"You're pathetic, you know that?  You're the worst umpire I've ever seen in my life!  You're never going to work another match if I have anything to say about it!" 

to 

"Answer my question!  The question, jerk!"

...and that's just what I can post without deleting expletives(--rimshot--)!  

But honestly that was peanuts compared to what he said to a linesman in Davis Cup match with Boris Becker in Hartford, Connecticut in 1987.  

Earlier in Becker's career, in 1985, McEnroe had ironically been in the position of chastising a young player who had the temerity to argue line calls - just let that sink in for a second - McEnroe giving it to Becker for arguing with the officials.  That day, he told Becker to "...try winning something before you start complaining."  Three months later Becker won Wimbledon - McEnroe's Wimbledon to be specific, as he was at that time the two-time defending champion - so the relationship had a rough start to begin with.

On a side-bar, that probably wasn't the worst thing Becker would hear in his career - that could go to what Pat Cash said to him during their 1988 Wimbledon quarterfinal.  As the two last winners of Wimbledon (Becker in 1985/1986, Cash in 1987) the match was tense from start to finish - except for one moment of levity where Cash, chasing down a drop shot, fell face forward over the net, and Becker - in jest - did the same a second later.  Cash was having none of it, and as they each returned to their respective sides of the net, he muttered, loud enough for Becker to hear, "You're a fucking smart-arse Kraut."  Becker paused, momentarily as if he contemplated physically assaulting him, but settled for blowing him off the court in straight sets instead.

But what McEnroe said, not to Becker, but to a linesman, that day in Hartford, during his first match against Becker, a 5 hour 22 minute back breaker for players and spectators alike, was far worse.  He had already said to Germany's captain, Niki Pilic, "You shut up, Niki!  God damn it!  Shut up!", when the tension of the match really got the better of him...yet again.  Feeling that the (largely American) line judges had been unacceptably objective in their calls, McEnroe told a black linesman who'd called a Becker ball good, "I didn't know they had black germans."  The linesman had at once been insulted for his race, and had his patriotism questioned - all for doing what we Americans would say was his job that day - to dispassionately call the lines.  He responded by lowering his head in anger and admirably finishing his shift.

McEnroe's said some pretty mean spirited things on a tennis court, most of which, if you asked him about it now, I'm sure he'd double down on it...assuming he remembers saying it.  Bill Scanlon (who had for years been a thorn in McEnroe's side - his own personal Brad Gilbert, so to speak) claims that McEnroe, in the middle of a match in 1981 in San Francisco attempted, in a perfectly calm and rational way, to explain to Scanlon that not only did he not deserve to be on the same court as him, but that he should do everyone there a favor and lose the match because nobody wanted him to win.  If it weren't so crazy, I wouldn't believe it, but believe it I do.  And I'm sure that, to this day, McEnroe would double down on the sentiment.  After all, who the hell was Bill Scanlon (but an NCAA champion who won six career titles and beat McEnroe at the 1983 US Open when he was the #1 player in the world, Wimbledon champion and had won the title for the third year on the trot two years two year earlier...but I digress)

But this comment to an American, I'm certain he would recant...well, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't...but it was pretty bad.

2001 US Open, Lleyton Hewitt

For me, the greatest irony of the whole hullabaloo about this Kyrgios kid is that, of all people on the planet, the one he's turned to for guidance and mentoring is Lleyton Hewitt.  

Huh?

I know it's 2015 and he's retiring this year, but has it really been that long since Hewitt was cited for doing almost exactly the same things as has drawn so much derision for his young compatriot?  The list of transgressions is too long to cite every incident, so there is certainly enough fill this column with plenty to refer to "His Irascibleness".  How did Hewitt irritate the tennis world? 

Oh, let me count the ways:

There was his favorite expression to abuse linesman, whom he felt were, "...weak as piss..", his defamation suit against the ATP in 2003, in which he sought $1.5M in damages for being accused of (and fined for) skipping an interview.  In 2005 he once drew the ire of tennis' significant gay community by calling an umpire he disagreed with, "...a poof."  That was in addition to the myriad of his opponents whom he referred to as, "...arseholes...", or specifically the two Argentines whom he 1) shoulder bumped on a changeover (David Nalbandian 2005 Australian Open) and 2) whom he told to "fuck off" (Guillermo Coria) after he directed an overhead smash at Hewitt in a Davis Cup match in 2005.  The Argentine Davis Cup supporters, known for their contextual xenophobia, then coined (and joyfully chanted) this cute little soccer stadium style song:

"Y que paso, 
Y que paso, 
Que Lleyton Hewitt se cagoooo!" 

(translation: "And what happened?  And what happened?  Llyeton Hewitt shit himself!"

But, I would say the worst thing Hewitt ever said on a tennis court was this little delight in the second round of the US Open in 2001, where in a match against James Blake, he demanded the removal of a black linesman whom he insisted was making calls against him, and in favor of his black opponent, out of racial bias:

"Change him, change him immediately!  I've only been foot faulted at one end!  Look at 'im, look at 'I'm mate, and you tell me what the similarity is?"

Let's set aside the idiocy of Hewitt removing a black linesman because he was playing a black player.  I mean, how would it work out if every black player wanted every white linesman removed every time he felt he was getting rooked?  Let's also set aside the stupidity of actually vocalizing terrible thoughts that, if we're honest, go through everyone's head at the worst of times.  You can't help what you think, but you can certainly think twice before expressing the worst of your thoughts.  Is this what he'll be mentoring Kyrgios about?

I would say that the best thing that Hewitt could mentor Kyrgios about is how to apologize for one incident after another...that is, if Hewitt had ever apologized for anything...except to actual spastics after he called an umpire one in 2006.  In fact, in that incident with Blake he simply feigned ignorance, and flatly denied having said anything racial - after trying to sell that mess to the press, he may as well have tried to sell them some oceanfront property in Nebraska.  Maybe he sold it to Kyrgios, because for the life of me, I can't understand the logic behind being mentored by someone who was hated more than you.

Maybe Hopefully the mentoring is entirely technical, in which case I say, "Good on ye' mate!"  Nobody squeezed better results out of their natural-born abilities than ol' Rusty.

Serena Williams, US Open 2009

I'm not going to lie - I wanted to love Serena Williams, I really did...honest.  And if I had a shorter memory, I might have been able to get past the litany of things she's done and said that has placed her right at the top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) of my list of least favorite players on the WTA.  

When she insulted Martina Hingis for a lack of formal education, I found it more than mildly ironic for someone who has a degree in nothing. When she made that hullabaloo over "The Hand", I sided with Henin, because I thought if Serena saw the hand up, she shouldn't have served, and therefore she got what she deserved:  a second serve.  When, after having an overhead smash rightfully directed at her feet, she glared at Maria Sharapova in their Australian Open final of 2007 and muttered "bitch", unlike the Rod Laver Arena audience, I didn't think it was funny. 

But when she threatened to shove a ball down a lineswoman's throat at the 2009 US Open semi-final with Kim Clijsters and was defaulted only for a third code of conduct violation, that really took the cake.  Actually I thought she got off easy, because she should have been immediately defaulted from the entire tournament, including the doubles final, which she played and won with Venus.  But to me, almost as infuriating as the arrogance of her comment to the lineswoman, was the shameless attempt by her supporters to couch her outburst as simply swearing, then call the media and the USTA to task for having a double standard when men do the same - as if the issue was swearing.  There's nothing I hate more than comparing two unlike things, bemoaning the unlike reactions to them, and then claiming some "ism" as a result - mostly because it distracts from actual "isms"...but I digress.

I also thought it was an act of pandering when the USTA chose to give her only a suspended fine and suspension, which actually didn't expire until the week after her 2011 US Open final, where she was again cited for code of conduct violations.  The "sentence" still wasn't enforced, and I wasn't surprised that she didn't cite being black, or a woman, or the player to beat, for that bit of leniency, even though I suspect all of those contributed to it.  I thought it was absurd that she had the audacity to do to Jelena Jankovic the exact same thing Justine did to her, both at the Family Circle Cup in 2013, and again in Dubai last year.  It was just another in a long list of examples of entitlement that she has, in her view, "earned".

Oh well, nobody's perfect, but I've not heard anything worse on the women's side in a long time...6 years, to be exact.

Jimmy Connors, 1991 US Open

For some people, it was the greatest thing that happened to the US Open - in fact to a lot of people it still is.  Just ask anyone who's made it through an interminable rain delay in Flushing Meadows, watching that match again and again, until the image of Connors hilariously neon yellow racquet is burned into your retina.  This despite the likelihood that the most impressive performance was his encounter with Patrick McEnroe, who will unfortunately be remembered best (as a player, that is) for that memorable collapse, and his ATP final against older brother John in Chicago, that same year.  At this time I could point out that Patrick McEnroe should be remembered for winning French Open doubles in 1989, and making the semi-final of the Australian Open in singles in 1991...but I'd digress.

Connors had been away from the game for almost the entirety of 1990, due to a wrist injury that just wouldn't go away.  There were many who were prepared to write his professional obituary, and despite the fact that Connors had developed a certain cult following (with a certain late night crowd at the US Open) generally he had never really been fully appreciated in the tennis world as he is almost universally now.  In the beginning of his career, Connors irritated a lot of people simply by virtue of who he was beating so mercilessly on his way to winning 3 of 4 majors in 1974.  The beloved Ken Rosewall, at age 39, had never won Wimbledon, and Connors did more to cement his reputation as a ruthless competitor, by obliterating the sentimental favorite in the last throes of his career.  Rosewall, for his part, was emotionally trying to etch his name on the wall, 21 years after he lost his first final there to none other than Lew Hoad.  

When he did it again to Rosewall at Forest Hills, what few fans he had at the time, Connors squandered by deigning to do what anyone in his position would have - win big.  The manner of the defeat was the coup de grace from which his popularity wouldn't fully recover until that fateful fortnight in 1991.  It didn't help that, having been raised by women to compete with men, he had something of a chip on his shoulder, which also had him grabbing his crotch, and telling himself to take his skirt off when he felt he wasn't hitting the ball well.

Connors had made no friends by saying about those contemporaries that were less than enamored with him, "Most of these guys are windbags; if any of them wants to start some shit, I'll be ready..." back in his heyday.  He once sued the fledgling ATP (having refused to join it or its boycott of Wimbledon in 1973), and its president Arthur Ashe in 1975, for the part they played in him getting banned from the 1974 French Open, which most assumed he would have won along with the calendar slam that year, had he not insisted on playing World Team Tennis.  Curiously, the same fate had befallen Bjorn Borg in 1977, but somehow the derision readily directed towards Connors, was restrained when it came to his fair haired nemesis.  Speaking of Borg, Connors once told an interviewer, whilst in the midst of a desperate 10 match losing streak to Borg, "I'll follow that son a bitch to the ends of the earth until I beat him again."

In 1984, while getting his ass handed to him by John McEnroe at the semi-finals at Roland Garros, Connors famously wagged his finger in McEnroe's face and told him his 8-year old son behaved better than he did, and that he should grow up and shut up.  Mildly ironic to those who remembered him telling McEnroe to, "...keep your mouth shut when you're out here," in their 1980 Wimbledon semi-final.  Furthermore, he endeared himself to nobody at the US Open in 1977, when he ran over to the other side of the clay court in his 4th round encounter with Corrado Berazzuti to wipe out a mark the Italian was in the process of questioning. He would go on to lose that final to Guillermo Vilas, poetically on an equally dubious call which was overturned based on a mark in the clay.  Vilas is still waiting for his handshake from that match.

But 1991 was his moment, and while the world were enamored of his memorable run to the semi-final of the US Open, losing to Jim Courier, the tournament reached a kind of anti-climax when the heir apparent to his competitiveness (if not his behavior) put him out of his sweet misery before losing to Edberg in the final.  Connors had played Aaron Krickstein in 4th round in Louis Armstrong stadium, where his young "friend" suffered the ignominy of being the most memorable of 5 losers to Connors that year in his run.  And it was during that match, Connors uttered one of the more memorably disgraceful things ever said on a tennis court to umpire David Littlefield.  To start, he took issue with an overrule that Krickstein had suborned, saying:

"Get your ass out of the chair, you're a bum - you're a bum!  I'm out here playing my ass off, 39 years old, and you're doing that?  Very clear, my butt, my butt, very clear!  You wouldn't 'a said anything if Krickstein had gone over!"

Later, after another ball had been called long, which he didn't overrule, perhaps out of fear of getting involved unecessarily, Connors had this to say:

"Get the fuck out of here, god-damn it - you are abortion...you are an abortion!  Do you know that?"

To me, that takes the cake - the worst thing a good catholic kid from St. Louis could say to an umpire, and he said it twice.  Littlefield, to his credit, behaved entirely professionally, and didn't respond in kind, although it was his right to do so.  He didn't even cite him for a code violation, which in my opinion was a mistake, but who would have had the courage to do so under the circumstances?

For my money, I've never heard anything worse on a tennis court.

AT THE END OF THE DAY

I think a lot worse things have been said on a tennis court than somebody slept with your girlfriend a year ago, who may or may not have been your girlfriend at the time.  It's a daggy thing to say at any time...but under your breath, facing the other way, 90 feet away, I hardly think Kyrgios was saying it for Wawrinka to hear.  In the worst case scenario, it was a stupid thing to say, and may get him "Penn 1" tattooed on his chest the next time he faces Wawrinka, but hardly the equal of some of the more unsavory things cited above.

A little perspective never hurts...
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