Given the long, loud and florid history of bad-boy tennis stars over the years, 20-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios has a long way to go to match even the midlevel of some of tennis' tantrum-throwers, let alone master imploders and provocateurs such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ilie "Nasty" Nastase and the enormously talented but staggeringly tortured Marat Safin, who always seemed to be an existential crises waiting to happen.
Safin would sometimes feign crying when he slapped a shot into a net. Sometimes he'd plaintively wail, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" -- which only made observers who knew his many quirks want to ask if he could please be a little more specific if he really wanted help.
The antics that landed Kyrgios in the headlines the past few months were loutish, all right. But for now, he doesn't begin to eclipse even a chronic journeyman crank like Jeff Tarango, whose decision to walk off the court at Wimbledon (and default his 1995 third-round round match against Germany's Alexander Mronz) was a first in the tournament's 109-year history. Tarango's misbehavior was swiftly exceeded by that of his wife, Benedicte, who tracked down chair umpire Bruno Rebeuh on the grounds of the All-England Club afterward in order to slap him across the face.
Tarango said Rebeuh was "corrupt" and accused him of fixing matches for other players. Benedicte, who was dressed in a chic white suit when she confessed to taking a swing at Rebeuh, unrepentantly told reporters: "The guy deserved a lesson."
Kyrgios is off to a similarly attention-getting start. His rakish fashion sense -- the tattoos, the earrings, the rainbow-colored patch of hair atop his head -- suggests someone gave him a Dennis Rodman starter kit.
Kyrgios has an interesting backstory, too: His mother was a princess in her native Malaysia before she dropped the title when she moved to Australia and married his Greek father. Kyrgios was building a reputation for objectionable behavior even before television microphones picked up his loutish comments about Stan Wawrinka's dating life during their Rogers Cup match in Montreal a few weeks ago.
That stunt earned Kyrgios a couple of fines and a 28-day conditional suspension from the ATP Tour that will be in effect during the US Open, which starts Monday. The punishment won't prevent Kyrgios from playing in the tournament, or others, unless he blows up again.
"So, wait ... they suspended the suspension?" tennis analyst Mary Carillo asked with a laugh.
Kyrgios' habit of seeking out microphones to broadcast his running commentary during matches, his histrionics -- like flapping his arms during points to distract his opponents and battling chair umpires over things like taking too long during changeovers to change his socks -- long ago alienated the locker room, too. Not just ATP officials. He was booed and later fined at Wimbledon this year for barely bothering to swing at a few of Richard Gasquet's serves on the way to a thudding loss, then hotly disputed allegations that he'd tanked the game on purpose.
"He tanked ... it was obvious he did it," said John McEnroe, one of the sport's original brats. "As a 20-year-old kid, I did my share of dumb things, inappropriate things at times. [Jimmy] Connors did some crazy things too, but he was a helluva competitor. ... The good part is, I had people that I looked at. I think [Kyrgios] would be well-served to look at the guys like [Rafael] Nadal, the guys that go out there, tremendous effort players."
Indeed, one of the reasons Kyrgios, the world's 37th-ranked player, seems to stand out so much in today's game is men's tennis has been operating for years in sort of a golden age of civility.
The on-court rivalries are fierce among the Big Four -- Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. But they also unfailingly treat each other with deep respect, which is one of the reasons 23-year-old American Ryan Harrison nearly came to blows in Cincinnati with 19-year-old Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis, the friend whom Kyrgios invoked while slagging Warwinka.
"Wawrinka should've decked Kyrgios, and I should deck that kid," Harrison said after a testy postmatch confrontation following his loss to Kokkinakis.
Harrison later said it was because he cares deeply about the direction that his generation will take the game once Federer and his contemporaries go.
Taken altogether, it's enough to make you wonder if there's something endemic to tennis itself that drives so many players to such distraction?
After all, tantrums happen in tennis all the time. And if you notice, there's no real pattern to where the players come from, what style they play, whether they're tall or small, young or old, a baseliner or a net player, or a man or a woman.
(Serena Williams is arguably the all-time leader in the clubhouse among female ranters. Venerable tennis historian and analyst Bud Collins, who has seen it all, called Williams' profane rant at the US Open lineswoman who called a foot fault on her in the 2009 semifinals the worst he'd ever seen in all his years in the sport -- which is saying something.)
So is there just something about playing top-level, high-stakes tennis that makes so many players act as if they are temporarily or routinely losing their minds?
"Have you ever tried to play tennis?" McEnroe asked Tuesday. "I think if you played, you know how frustrating it is. It's like golf. To me, that's one of the few, if only, games that's even more frustrating than tennis. ...
"With tennis, you're running around, you break a sweat, physically you feel better. But it's an incredibly difficult game to master. ... When you're the only person out there, the focus is on you and other person, and it's so much more magnified, how difficult it is to keep it together at all times. ... It's an extremely mental game. This isn't just about how you hit a forehand. It's about like how you can handle adversity under pressure and keep your composure in front of a lot of people and execute."
McEnroe cited Grigor Dimitrov's recent loss to Murray in Cincinnati as an example: "The guy had, like, one of the easiest balls in three hours, match point, his forehand, his best shot. And he misses it by 3 feet long. He couldn't even get the ball back in the court. That's how much the nerves got in the way at that time. It just shows you how difficult it can be."
Some tennis players' explosions do just seem situational -- a blurted reaction to the moment, a frustrating part of the profession. But other tantrums are personality-driven. In those cases, explosions seem to happen more frequently and often for reasons as varied as each individual.
McEnroe said that part of his antics were related to the fact that tennis was seen as an effete, country club sport and challenging that "was part of what drove me, anyway."
When Andre Agassi, another former enfant terrible, retired at the US Open in 2006, he wryly joked that if he could talk now to the boy he was at 17, he'd say, "I understand you a heck of a lot more than I want to be you." Agassi blamed a fair bit of his early-career outrageousness on unreconciled anger about not wanting to play tennis, but being forced into it as a very young child by his father.
Connors, who predated McEnroe's arrival in the 1970s by several years, was one of tennis' very first vulgarians along with Nastase, his Romanian-born pal. To this day, both he and McEnroe agree that nothing about their fierce rivalry was a put-on or a shtick.
"He was telling me I was more immature than his kid -- a baby -- but not in such nice words," McEnroe said, "and I thought he was a pompous ass. That's part of why we brought out the best and worst of each other."
McEnroe said he has some enduring admiration, even envy, for how both Connors and Serena seem to be able to use their temper tantrums to lift their play and even "scare the hell" out of their opponents, sometimes even before they ever leave the locker room. McEnroe says that's something he often couldn't do, and he doesn't think Kyrgios is able to do yet.
"Most people go down -- I did myself, toward the end of my career," McEnroe said. "There's a handful of people that have benefited. But it's a high-wire act."
That said, there's little evidence in tennis history to suggest that exorcising temperamentalists like Kyrgios is achievable.
Marcos Baghdatis was never really considered an enfant terrible on the tour. But even he had a mind melt once that prompted him to smash four rackets during a single changeover at the 2012 Australian Open. It seemed epic at the time -- until someone recalled how Croatian star Goran Ivanisevic, one of tennis's truly great eccentrics, busted up so many of his rackets during a match in England years earlier, he had to quit playing because he didn't have any left.
Ivanisevic, at least, had a compensating sense of humor about his outbursts.
American-born Andy Roddick was like that, too.
Ivanisevic comically insisted during his wholly unexpected, highly sentimental run to the 2001 Wimbledon title as a wild-card entry that there were actually three Gorans who existed inside his head: the Good Goran, the Bad Goran and the Emergency Goran, who made an entrance when Ivanisevic badly needed to win a point.
And Roddick? Early in his career, especially, he was apt to stomp around the court clutching his head or falling to his knees to lament a lost point. It wasn't unusual for him to scream as if he'd been scalded.
Sometimes he'd launch verbal bombs at the linespeople or chair umpires ("You're on live TV, you know. You look like a real moron right now.") But often, he was only berating himself. "I AM CHOKE-ING!" Roddick bellowed loud enough to reach the back rows at Wimbledon as Ivanisevic beat him in the second round during his magical '01 tear.
The other thing was, Roddick wasn't just comically outspoken on the court. He was the king of the biting postmatch news conference, too. Quite often, Roddick's angst over losing or even just playing badly would leave him smoldering hours later. And at moments like that, even the most innocuous question could spark exchanges like this:
Reporter: "Take us from 4-4, because up until then you were in the match. Then you got broken."
Roddick: "I was actually broken three more times, and two more times in the third set, and it was over 26 minutes later. Is that about what you saw too?"
Reporter: "You have a very fast serve."
Roddick: "It killed a small dog."
"I'm joking -- I am joking!" Roddick assured the reporter.
"The dog was huge," Roddick cracked.
Kyrgios has so far brought little of that playfulness to his antics.
But whereas Carillo finds many apologist defenses of Kyrgios unacceptable -- "He's not colorful, he's off-color, and he's not a character; what he's shown is a lack of character," she said -- both John and his brother Patrick McEnroe argue that tennis can use entertainers like Kyrgios if he can rein in his behavior a bit.
As Patrick put it: "There's only two players out there, and you could say that's part of the beauty of tennis. A great match is like nothing else with the drama and intensity. But a boring match can be pretty boring because you're looking at the same rectangle with two people on it. So you do try to look for different things to get people interested."
Given John McEnroe's still-rolling commercial success at playing the professional crank decades after his playing career ended, it's a little surprising to hear the original Super Brat agree with Patrick McEnroe and Carillo that Kyrgios crossed a line with what he said to Warinka.
"I'm not exactly the guy to talk to about keeping it all together," he joked.
But then, the McEnroes and Carillo, who played mixed doubles with John on tour, grew up together in Queens, and all three of them were mentored in the 1970s by legendary coach Harry Hopman. Each of them independently said that they believe tennis, at its soul, really is different from football or basketball or other sports where the sort of trash talking Kyrgios did takes place. There's an honor code in tennis that demands you don't distract opponents during play. That you don't disrespect the game. That you revere its rich history.
But while John McEnroe will readily admit to some regrets about his bad behavior, Connors is less repentant. He wrote his autobiography when he turned 60 to explain himself. Not exonerate himself.
As Connors put it when interviewed two years ago after his book's release, "I saw one article, it almost compared us to a Wild West Show. And it was. ... We were learning along the way, and we were looking to get TV involved. And the fans involved. And sponsors involved. And so we had to do something to give them something for their money.
"Now, did we walk the line? Yes," Connors continued. "Did we fall off the line? Most definitely. But who's line, you know? Who drew that line? If it was my line, I never fell off of my line, you know? I might have fallen off yours. But like it or not, like me or not, like Nastase or not, like Vitas [Gerulaitis] or not -- whatever -- you had a reason to come, to root for us or against us. It didn't matter. You were there."
The same reasoning has been applied to Kyrgios. But Carillo buys that only to a point, too.
"He's only great for the game if he lives up to his gifts," Carillo insisted. "He doesn't need to be doing anything but getting better.
Carillo said when people come up to her today saying Kyrgios is the sport's next "rock star," she thinks to herself, "Do people really forget?"
"I've been following this sport for a while now," she said, "and there has only been one truly great rock star, and that was Bjorn Borg. He didn't have to do anything except play great tennis. And he never said a damn thing as he was beating you.
"How great was that?"