Monday, January 21, 2019

Breaking bad: Culture change and the bad boys of tennis


                                                      Image by news.com.au 

Perhaps even more newsworthy than Channel Nine’s off-centre camera angle which no-one is talking about anymore is the actual players themselves, significantly some of whom, like the weird camera angle, were knocked out early. I’ve been pondering what it must be like in that figurative and literal hothouse that is Melbourne Park and the Australian Open. 

People more expert than me describe Nick Kyrgios as a prodigious talent. We’ve watched, cheered and vilified the mavericks before. I’ve said in print they can be really good for business. 

He is. Isn’t he, Nike?

Is anyone else old enough to remember Jimmy Connors or the antics of John McEnroe? 
I wouldn’t suffer miserably from device lock-in if not for Steve Jobs.

Like Shane Warne, McEnroe still tells it like it is but both are highly socialised, eminently employable and compelling to hear commentate. Wayne Carey, according to some who know him, even work with him closely, have told me he’s reinvented himself as a person. So what do we do about our triple Ts - our talented tennis trio of Kyrgios, Kokkinakis and Tomic?

It’s well established in neuroscience that the male cerebral cortex is still developing into one’s 20s. “Poor impulse control” aka reactive tweets deleted but a short time later are big telltale signs. Plenty of straight-laced judgmental baby boomers were rebels at that age too. We could explain it (even if we don’t forgive it) with the narrative of entitled millennials who want and “deserve” all the opportunities - think Davis Cup - just because I exist and it exists. But then how do we explain the way in which de Minaur and Barty carry themselves? Easy. Higher emotional intelligence, greater humility, perhaps better role models in their orbit, growth mindset including a positive relationship with feedback and the likely absence of personality disorder. Or all of the above. And what’s more, Tennis Australia, in a thinly-veiled manifesto about what it does and doesn’t find acceptable has applauded that too and made it clear opportunities will flow for those who model the desired behaviours. But moulding, rewarding, affirming good culture doesn’t equate to performance in the short-term, especially in an individualistic sport. Perhaps regrettably, it also doesn’t transcend talent and experience.

Kyrgios is patriotic and I believe him when he says he loves to play Davis Cup. Yes, #irony, it’s one of the things he and Lleyton Hewitt have in common. Also, Kyrgios seemed last week to have demonstrated a willingness to resist groupthink, distancing himself, somewhat awkwardly, from Tomic and a dastardly depiction of Hewitt. He indicated with his “Sure” (Enthusiasm) that he’d love to play Davis Cup if given the opportunity (Humility or the suggestion of it).

I’m fascinated as to why some have concluded Kyrgios and Tomic are mates. There is nothing in Kyrgios’s body language or “script” that I’ve detected that leads me to believe they are close. Perhaps they are somewhat bonded in the face of adversity but it’s adversity mostly created by themselves. And even if they are close, contrast the mates’ reactions to losing early at the Oz Open. Tomic externalised blame and created a subterfuge story in the best tradition of smoke and mirrors politics. Kyrgios said he thought he played quite well, that his opponent served unbelievably well and then refused to blame his injuries for his loss. His potty mouth and anger on court (thanks court microphones!) seemingly directed at the physio during his first round match but which was really a crass symptom update, is a reactive and raw sign that he really cares, wants to do well in his home Slam and his body just won’t let him.

His “What do you want from me?” in the after match press conference depicted by a news outlet as a “bizarre response” was a reasonable question. He was being hounded on a story he did not create and a feud of which he may not be part.

I do agree with Pat Rafter that any possibility of conscious or unconscious bias in selection should be toughly scrutinised. I also think it is entirely legitimate that criteria other than form weigh into decisions about who represents our country. More than just performance weighed into the cricket bans of our two best batsmen!

But that dynamic tension between character and capability is tough when you’ve got compliant and enthusiastic learners AND mavericks in your selection pool. 

Hewitt has driven a stake in the ground for great culture and character. He’s right to do it but it’s a fraught strategy. It is offensive to be half-hearted about representing your country when others would almost kill to do so. Stepping onto the court is the first bit. It’s staying the course when the going gets tough which is one of the things we love about the “Demon” and something Hewitt lived by and now demands.

As for Kokkinakis, he may have decided that all Hollywood bratpacks must have at least three members, or else he’s being roped in by Tomic’s use of the oldest trick in the dirty fighting playbook being “I’m not the only one that feels this way. Everybody hates Hewitt etc...” (or words to that effect). Brené Brown calls it the “invisible army” and while it may only be a small unit rather than a battalion, they are armed and dangerous. At the end of the day, whilst Lleyton Hewitt tries to embed a new culture in the nextgen Australian tennis players, Kyrgios and Tomic are responsible for the vast majority of wins against top 20 opponents and alienating them completely when they play for themselves most of the year and shoot their mouths off with abandon, is risky and publicly brand-corrosive. 

Hewitt with the backing of TA is trying to tell them what to do. Heck. Kyrgios doesn’t even have a coach. That’s how much he loves being told what to do. l’ve offered. He never replied. But Kyrgios is the majestic wild brumby; difficult to tame, but tame him we must, not try to break him. And I think he can get there. I want him to get there.

For mine, it’s Tomic I don’t believe is redeemable as our kind of national representative. I’m struck by his language and behaviour. It seems so pervasively damning, aggressive, arrogant, blame-shifting, ‘fused’ to his perspective, even anti-social and extreme in his self-importance that I’m not sure he can ever fit in with our normative expectations of our sporting stars, whom we have shown time and time again - think Mssrs Warne, Carey, Smith - we can and will forgive if they meet us even half way. Failing that, perhaps Tomic would like to have a go at being President - but please, not of Australia.

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