Blog, Social Justice

The Wimbledon Way: Double Standards for Bad Boys

Nick Kyrgios holding a tennis racquet, yelling at someone.

From June 27 – July 10, 2022, Wimbledon 2022 took center court in the sports world. In a sport that is already known for its exclusivity and roots in white country club culture, the tournament’s men’s finalists, Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios, present us with two men who have garnered the reputation of being rule-breakers – a bitter pill that reminds us who is allowed to exist freely as an elite athlete and who is not.

The tournament’s eventual champion, Djokovic, broke news cycles in January of this year when he traveled to Melbourne to play in the Australian Open without having received a vaccination against COVID-19. His travel visa to Australia also falsely stated that he hadn’t traveled to any other countries in the past two weeks, despite (quite publicly) visiting Spain. Mind you, this occurred just a month after conducting in-person interviews despite testing positive for COVID and espousing anti-vaccination sentiments towards the vaccine requirement imposed by Australian authorities to keep the broader population safe.

Despite the fact that Australia’s immigration minister eventually required Djokovic’s deportation, the hesitation on the part of Australian authorities to act quickly ignited a fair amount of public outcry for the double standard embedded in his special treatment.

If continued respect of Djokovic leaves a sour taste in the mouth, then his Wimbledon finals opponent generates something far more rancid.

The Australian player, Nick Kyrgios, has officially earned a reputation for being a “bad boy,” and Brits have decided that they absolutely love that about him.

Certainly, the temptation to like him is there. His tattoo sleeve and backwards hat against the backdrop of the pristinely mowed grass courts of Wembley Stadium could easily delight the young closeted lesbian in me that grew up playing tennis and loathed the unspoken court etiquette of certain gendered attire.

But throughout the tournament he also berated umpires, swore at his close friends and fans, and ultimately demonstrated a complete inability to keep his cool at any time by loudly complaining about everything from his own play to a single woman in the stands, who, according to Kyrgios “had about 700 drinks” and was distracting him. One can only imagine the pressure of being such a beloved bad boy.

The complete impunity of Kyrgios’ behavior, its celebration, even, ignites a very specific rage in me as I remember the way the center court umpire dealt Serena Williams a series of penalties for her behavior in the 2018 U.S. Open final, in which she played Naomi Osaka.

Williams received a warning for illegally receiving coaching during the match, an accusation that she whole-heartedly denied, stating “I would rather lose than cheat.” Because she received that warning, she then received a point penalty when she broke her racquet by smashing it on the court.

It’s obviously hard to argue that she did not, in fact, break her racquet frame, since it ended up in four pieces, but seeing that she was docked a point, inspired her to confront the court umpire. “That should have been a warning,” she stated, since she so adamantly believed that the previous warning for coaching was unfair.

Finally, since she called the umpire “a thief,” he docked her an entire game (a huge blow in tennis) for “verbal abuse.”

Osaka would eventually win the final as she held a strong lead and played a strong match, but the social backlash against Williams was immediate and vicious. People said she was a whiner and a sore loser; an Australian Cartoonist, Mark Knight, published a cartoon that was undeniably fueled by canonically racist depictions of black women.

Many people cited the 2018 match as a turning point in their support of Williams: they used to respect her and then they didn’t. Name a vitriolic statement about hysterical women and it’s been hurled at Serena Williams. To say nothing of the unsolicited feedback about her body, her outfits, her skin color.

And the real kicker is that Williams was penalized for trying to defend her integrity, which an umpire subjectively called into question. And when she tried to call him out for this, she faced greater consequences.

And of course, she reminded us in that moment, this happens every time she steps on the court.

Meanwhile, in this week’s tournament, Kyrgios received zero penalties for dropping F-bombs, screaming incessantly, and at times harassing the umpire.

It’s a start reminder that some folks carry the weight of their identities onto the court and some are not.

While just last week, Djokovic discussed how excited he was to be at the tournament, specifically citing the polish of the all-white dress code, players in the women’s division were speaking up about how overwhelming it is to play in all white and run the risk of menstruating. Some take birth control pills in order to time their periods around the tournament.

The sterility of Wimbledon, with its all white dress code and rules of decorum, is constantly enacting violence against folks who are not white men.

So while the news heralds this Wimbledon final as the height of sports entertainment, particularly in its celebration of Kyrgios’ macho defiance of decorum, I see further evidence of a system that continues to enable the fragile egos of men.

I recommend listening to our podcast about women in sports – which is likely to become a series!

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