Tantrums and sledging are easy – it's winning that matters in sport

Not only do we indulge flaws but we often, wrongly, interpret them as the engines of success.

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When I was 16, I experimented with the persona of a French intellectual. I had no talent for existential riddles, had insufficiently hooded eyes and didn’t exude ennui. But I did master smoking. So if I spent enough time pulling laconically on a Gauloise like Jean-Paul Belmondo, surely the Left Bank would come running to west Kent?

Instead of attracting a cult following, however, I merely developed a nasty cough. Some anti-heroes smoked, I discovered, but smoking didn’t make you an anti-hero.

Poor Nick Kyrgios, the crass Australian tennis player, is making a similar mistake about correlation and causation. He believes that winners behave badly (he’s wrong about that), which leads him to assume that if he behaves badly he’ll become a winner (logical error number two). Kyrgios excuses himself on the grounds that he is a “person­ality” (mistake three). In his defence, all three myths are frequently indulged inside professional sport.

Given he is only 20 years old, Kyrgios has a crowded disciplinary track record. At Wimbledon this summer he furiously bounced his racket into the crowd (narrowly missing a spectator), abused line judges and apparently called one chair umpire “dirty scum”.

His on-court behaviour took an even sharper nosedive this past week when he “sledged” Stan Wawrinka, the widely liked Swiss player, during a tournament in Montreal. “Kokkinakis [another player] banged your girlfriend,” Kyrgios said to Wawrinka. “Sorry to tell you that, mate.” Kyrgios was fined $10,000 by the ATP.

Sledging in sport relies on three myths. First, that verbal abuse is bound up with natural competitiveness, even “mental strength”. This can be dealt with succinctly. The most feared fast bowler of the 1980s, Michael Holding – moniker “Whispering Death” – never sledged anyone. Pedro, Man United’s proposed star signing, scarcely says a word on the pitch. Winning is always the aspiration. Behaviour is always a choice.

And yet, when the pictures call for a mollifying explanation, TV commentators often fall back on the trusty line, “That’s how much he cares.” This is an unwitting sledge, against all players (past and present) who cared very much about winning yet managed not to lose their dignity. If caring and competitiveness were so obviously and audibly revealed, sports results would be a lot easier to predict.

Second, there is a misconception about just who is the victim of sledging. As with many forms of bullying, the person with the real problem is the bully. A couple of years after I’d retired from cricket, I bumped into a former opponent. We’d had many good tussles on the pitch. I was pleased to see him and was surprised he seemed strangely shifty and embarrassed. He began an odd monologue about how he used to be an idiot on the pitch but he was trying to control himself these days. Only then did I remember he had been a sledger. I’d forgotten: he remembered.

Finally, there is the myth of “character” and “personality”. This holds that “interesting” sportsmen are loud and unpleasant whereas controlled and dignified ones are boring automatons (Kyrgios calls them “robots”). Martin Amis defined “personality” as “an exact synonym of a seven-letter duosyllable starting with an A and ending with an E (and also featuring, in order of appearance, an SS, an H, an O and an L)”.

John McEnroe, who pioneered the on-court tantrum, has described Kyrgios as “a breath of fresh air”. It depends how you like your fresh air, I suppose.

The idea that sport is interesting only when it is played by explicitly flawed “characters” is like arguing that the only worthwhile books and paintings are produced by tempestuous “artistic” personalities. In reality, chopping off a bit of ear is comparatively easy. It’s getting the work done that’s so difficult.

In one sense, Kyrgios’s theory of “character” proves the lag between perception and reality. In the 1980s, most people presumed that as financial rewards increased, on-court behaviour would decline. “Of course, given how much money there is in sports today . . .”
was used to justify almost anything.

McEnroe went even further. Manners and restraint were explicitly bound up with ineptitude. Self-control propped up amateurishness and privilege. “To me, ‘manners’ meant sleeping linesmen at Wimbledon,” he reflected, “and bowing and curtseying to rich people with hereditary titles who didn’t pay any taxes.” Surely sport would continue as he predicted, with money and ambition dismantling the decayed relics of the amateur era.

In tennis, quite the opposite has happened. As earnings have rocketed, behaviour has generally improved. The market puts a high price on courtesy. Both fans and sponsors admire the coexistence of fierce competitiveness and human respect.

Yet one strand of human nature wishes to have its worst fears confirmed. Not only do we indulge flaws but we often interpret them as the engines of success. Steve Jobs’s infamous rudeness has been reconfigured into the narrative of the impatient, creative maverick. Not so. “Nasty was not necessary,” Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson concluded. “It hindered him more than it helped him.”

Of McEnroe, we say: “Aren’t all winners a bit like that?” Jobs: “All geniuses are impossible to deal with.” In fact, the only certainty about geniuses is that they are all different. The only established truth about talent is that it’s not the exclusive property of one personality type.

Kyrgios is a fantastic natural athlete. A personality? Not that I can see. He’s more of an embarrassment. Say that a person flops next to you at a dinner party, sweating, swearing loudly and laughing raucously. Is that what you call a character? 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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