SYDNEY: The coronavirus has turned sport on its head and nowhere more so than in tennis, where the often-controversial Nick Kyrgios has been anointed as “St Nick” for his moral leadership during the pandemic.
Best known for his flamboyant persona and spectacular on-court tantrums, Kyrgios has long been a provocative and polarising figure as he racked up a string of fines and bans.
But the combustible Australian has shown a different side in recent weeks as he took Novak Djokovic and other top players to task for their “stupidity” and risky behaviour.
It followed the world number one’s decision to press ahead with an exhibition tournament in the Balkans, where social distancing was minimal. Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki all tested positive for COVID-19.
“Don’t @ me for anything I’ve done that has been ‘irresponsible’ or classified as ‘stupidity’ – this takes the cake,” Kyrgios tweeted.
Kyrgios also lashed “selfish” Alexander Zverev after he was spotted partying despite vowing to self-isolate following Djokovic’s Adria Tour, while questioning Dominic Thiem’s intellect after the Austrian hit out at his criticism.
The exchanges follow Kyrgios’s admirable, and often emotional, efforts to drum up support for victims of the devastating bushfires that ripped through Australia this year, earning him new respect.
Often lamented in the media as a loud mouth and wasted talent, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is now calling 40th-ranked Kyrgios the “voice of reason”.
“Crazy events are happening every day in sport but the wackiest of all is Nick Kyrgios becoming a COVID crusader and the clear-thinking conscience of a twisted tennis world,” it wrote recently. “St Nick. Moral guardian. Who’d a thunk it?”
Tennis great John Newcombe also praised him for calling out players flouting COVID-19 protocols, but suggested he should do so less publicly.
“I know when we were playing, if you had a problem you took it to the person. You didn’t make it public. But it’s a different world, I guess,” he told reporters.
The “new Nick” is not to everyone’s liking, with some on social media suggesting he was using the pandemic to raise his profile and re-ignite feuds with players he doesn’t get on with.
“He’s trying to be relevant off the court cuz everyone knows he can’t ever deliver on the court,” said one user, while another suggested: “He’s using the virus as an excuse to do what he’s always done which is criticise other players on social media.”
That criticism includes Djokovic, after last year Kyrgios said of the Serb: “I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked.”
“This whole celebration thing (blowing kisses to the crowd) that he does after matches, it’s like so cringeworthy,” he added.
Kyrgios also has history with Zverev, whom he enraged in January by provocatively performing push-ups when the German was serving double faults during the ATP Cup.
While Kyrgios, 25, will always have his knockers, he also has a big fanbase with 1.4 million Instagram followers and hundreds of thousands on Twitter.
As Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou noted this week: “He (Kyrgios) is one of the only guys beside the top three who fills up the stadiums.”
“He is provocative and he exaggerates but that’s how he is and that’s why he is an interesting character and a lot of people like him,” he added.
The Sydney Morning Herald suggested Kyrgios’ COVID-19 criticisms were “part of an image-rebuild” that started with his bushfire fundraising after a series of on-court scandals last year.
“He has endorsements with Nike, Yonex and Beats headphones. Now that he is the world ambassador against tennis dickheads, he puts himself even more firmly into the hands of corporate image-makers,” it wrote.