Heroes, Villains and Dummy Spits

As the fantastic spectacle that is the Australian Open gathers pace – it’s time to talk tennis.  The match of the year at the 2015 AO was arguably between Nick Kyrgios and Andre Seppi on a raucous Hisense Area, and whether Kyrgios’s expletive laden performance was forgiven by a thrilling victory.  Nick and Bernie were in the news for all the wrong reasons over the past 12 months and I wonder, what on earth is going on here?

Played in the company of friends, or at your local sporting club, tennis is an extremely social and pleasant pass-time.  However, played at the highest levels, there are few sports that are as confrontational and adversarial as the gentlemanly sport of tennis.  Each and every shot is a personal battle with your opponent and it does not matter how many spectacular shots you hit, aces you unleash or how pretty it looks, all that matters at the end is the score line.

Don’t underestimate the feat of winning the Australian Open or any other grand slam.  The winner has to overcome seven opponents over two weeks, each one trying to knock their block off, and becoming increasingly tougher and more skilled as the fortnight unfolds.  The combination of mental and physical toughness required to wrest the trophy is extraordinary.  Coaching is not allowed during the course of a match, and players are starkly alone on the court with nowhere to hide, no one to blame and no one to support them. Of course the spectators and the media are always there to lend a hand – or not…  Throw in some adrenaline, fatigue and emotion, it is no wonder that players can get hot-headed at times.

Tennis as a sport sits at the top of the tantrum index and there is hardly a modern player who has not popped a fufu valve at some stage or another.  Most often precipitating a match meltdown, there has been the odd player that has taken advantage of an opportune dummy spit.  The colourful exploits of Nastase, Connors and McEnroe are legendary and their well-timed tantrums often had a major impact on the ebb and flow of a match.  McEnroe’s ‘pits of the world’ performance during Wimbledon 1981 was one of my highlights.  Able to shift the focus of a match at an instant and then use his indignation to his advantage was pure genius and fantastic theatre.   McEnroe went on to win Wimbledon in that year by the way.   His less successful tantrum in an early round of the 1990 Australian Open led to his disqualification. However, it is commonly believed that McEnroe had miscalculated the number of code violations remaining under the newly changed code violation laws.

Although, in the main, our champions have shown that the ability to stay cool under pressure from many quarters has been a key feature of repeated success and sustained respect.

Let us consider the exploits of two of the great modern tennis players- Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.  Players that are worshipped for their skill, dedication and fighting spirit but also such cool and calculating on-court demeanour.  No doubt acutely aware of their status and value, what sets them apart for me, is that they don’t appear to think that they are bigger than the game or entitled to petulant behaviour. Even in the largest colosseums and in the most intense of situations, they seem to show respect for the sport, the players they play against and the players that have gone before.  Who can forget Roger’s obvious emotion when being presented with the 2006 AO trophy by his hero Rod Laver on Rod Laver Arena?  Even more impressive to me was the behaviour of injury plagued Nadal after a shock loss to qualifier Steve Darcis at Wimbledon 2013. During his post-match interview Rafael side-stepped any form of justification when he stated emphatically:-

“I’m not going to talk about my knee. The only thing I can say is that Steve played a fantastic match. Everything I could say about the knee would be an excuse, and I don’t like to do that when I lost a match like this. Steve deserves not one excuse.”

Two years ago I attended a lunch at City Hall to celebrate the launch of the book ‘Rod Laver: A Memoir’.  As my friends and I were walking past the train station on our way to City Hall, who should wander inconspicuously from the platforms but the legend himself.  The lunch was in his honour and I cannot be certain, but I am pretty sure that he caught the train there – sans entourage.  Now, I never saw him play in person, but I’m confident that petulant temper tantrums were not the norm when Laver was in the house.

The machinations of the past 12 months have been tough on the current ‘bad boys’ of Australian tennis, Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios.  The tennis talents of Nick and Bernard are undisputed, and we all desperately want to support them.  Kyrgios has been immensely popular with the younger age-groups and he has reciprocated by giving his time freely in support of kids and young players.  But there are so many unanswered questions and our perceptions are being formed by some heat-of-the-moment incidents.  If we are brutally honest with ourselves, I am sure we all made poor choices as teenagers, even without the immense pressure and scrutiny that these young guys are under.  Passion and hunger are needed in any successful endeavour and even Roger’s image as Mr Cool was forged within a hot teenage temper.

However, before I can honestly give my full support to Nick and Bernie, I do need to get a few things straight.  Do they have any higher respect than their own narcissistic exploits?  Do they respect the sport, the fans and the tennis community who helped make them who they are?  Will they enhance or diminish the sport and the reputation of their country?  I think that, if we can get a handle on these things, then I think we will be ready to overlook the occasional transgression played out in the heat of battle.  I said ‘occasional’ by the way!

One of the challenges for our young tennis stars, is that their emotional intelligence clearly does not yet match their tennis intelligence.   In all walks of life, we know that disruption and failure are important blocks in building resilience, developing capability and forming character.  Childhood prodigies can sometimes miss those important early inoculations and, just like chickenpox and measles, these lessons are more painful and consequential with age.  You would have to say that there are confusing signals for 2016 thus far and I am keen to see how it all unfolds as Nick and Bernie make their way through the Australian Open pressure cooker.

Although they say the crowd can be fickle, Australian sports fans have proven time and time again that we are willing to forgive and forget the transgressions of our (young) sporting heroes.  Above all else, we respect a big heart.  After all, let’s not forget a brash young Lleyton Hewitt – boy hasn’t he repaid our support and forgiveness in spades.



About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Robbo. I was an inveterate dummy spitter on court – always directed inwards. I just could not contain the anger. I can only wonder at the psychology of the top players. The singularity of mind that enables them to become that elite and play the big points in the majors is, quite frankly, abnormal and freakish. I think that’s a roundabout way of saying it may not be surprising if top tennis players are jerks. I often wonder if the players like Federer, Nadal and Tsonga are really that nice or just maintain a well practiced veneer. Does it matter?

    On the other hand Australian ‘fans’ (based on a sample from twitter) are the worst. You are only consistently acceptable as an Australian tennis player if you are nice and never lose. Anything less will earn you dislike. The hatred that spewed forth for our best tennis female player in the last 30 years the other night was repulsive. Personally I don’t much care for Bernie. Kyrgios is a very smart man who has cultivated a brand. I’m over needing to like players, also getting over needing to cheer for Australians.

  2. Kyrgios impressed me at the Hopman Cup. Brash, intense but whole hearted. A work in progress, but looked like he was enjoying life and tennis. His match against Berdych in the third round should be a ripper.
    I was barracking for Istomin the other night. Bernie is a petulant narcissist, and a spoiled brat who puts in when he feels like it. I feel sorry for him. An immense talent that should have been channelled and nurtured. We all need boundaries. Like the Poo I sense he may never get over himself, and remain the sullen gifted child.
    Good reflections. Thanks Robbo.

  3. Hi Dave,
    The Kyrgios brand is stronger and has more reach that we all realise I think. As Peter B suggests, tonight’s match should be a cracker. Berdych is one tough customer

    I agree that we have become an increasingly polarised audience. After all, it is pretty difficult to have comphrensive discussion in a few words of a rapid fire Social Media feed. We are being subtedly conditioned to ignore anything more than the shallowest of discourses.

    In respect to the elite players, I have met a number, and there really are some nice people amongst them. I too have wondered how they have remained so nice is such a dog-eat-dog environment and I think that their extreme talent and strong underlying values have allowed them to leap-frog the muck. Of course there are plenty who haven’t but this is the same in most walks of life isn’t it?

    Great comments and further observations by the way.


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