‘The rowdier, the better’: Special Ks give tennis a glimpse of an alternative future
Is this the future of tennis? “It has to be,” said Nick Kyrgios. When Kyrgios says something there is usually no turning back. Actually, sometimes there is, because we know he is prone to the odd backflip, or flip-out, or flippancy in general.
But Kyrgios really did not even need to say this to make it true; he and Thanasi Kokkinakis had already ensured the sport has changed irrevocably. Without warning. Without even a pleasant, tennis-like announcement.
That was on Thursday afternoon at Rod Laver Arena, where this improvisation of a doubles partnership had just finished another jam session. They had riffed off each other and the crowd – even those plebs with ground passes were allowed in – and come up with something catchier than yet another set of superiorly ranked battle-of-the-band rivals.
Related: High-octane Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis storm into Australian Open final
Half an hour later, in a press conference to mark their progression to a grand slam final at the first time of asking, Kyrgios described said opponents as “advanced”. Except that he used air quotes so we knew what he really meant was more like “they told us this doubles caper was hard”.
Kyrgios has long revelled in a bit of lawn-club brattiness. Now he has a partner-in-crime who tells the punters to “drink piss and come here”. “Here” is Kia Arena, which is week two’s John Cain equivalent and promises double the fun. A hotbed of either passionate supporters or yahooing yobos, depending on who you ask.
In some ways this “the rowdier, the better” (credit: Kokkinakis) mentality must be a bit of a headache for Tennis Australia. After the Novak Djokovic and Peng Shuai headaches, it is a nice one to have. And the governing body has made it work. Even Rod Laver himself joined the mob to watch them play on Thursday.
“I think we’re unpredictable and I think that’s why they enjoy it,” said Kokkinakis, the more predictable of the pair. His other half, Kyrgios, had it well thought out all along.
“My goal is to only bring new fans that may not be following tennis to watch tennis,” he said. “If they flick on a match and they have Thanasi and I playing in an entertaining doubles match, [and] they know nothing about tennis, if they watch that match just then they probably would tune in next time. That’s what I’m about. That’s what I want to bring. I think that’s how the sport is going to survive.”
The establishment might argue the sport is just fine as it is, without the bravado of players hijacking the game’s morality for their own enjoyment. But if the rest of us are also enjoying ourselves, does the why even matter? Do we have to turn it over in our cultured hands in search of some acceptably high-brow meaning? This type of tennis is a little less traditional, it is also quite fun, and these two things do not have to be mutually exclusive.
“I think people have just got to be open,” Kokkinakis said. “You’re always trying to develop a sport and grow a sport. Of course, you got to keep it within the boundaries. If people are so narrow-minded they can’t see this is bringing a lot of fans and a lot of eyes, I think that is their problem.”
The Special Ks have taken tradition and turned it into entertainment for the masses
A Netflix crew has been following the duo behind the scenes around Melbourne Park for a Formula One Drive To Survive-style series. Initially it was only following Kyrgios around, because even Netflix did not predict this storyline. No algorithm or formula could have manufactured such loose units – and they are just the spectators. The Special Ks have taken tradition and turned it into entertainment for the masses, to boozy afternoons in the sun and very untennis-like behaviour.
One cannot help but wonder how this would all go down at Wimbledon. We did get a peek back in 2013 when Kyrgios and Kokkinakis teamed up to win the boys doubles title. “We got in trouble for wearing Wimbledon headbands,” Kyrgios recalled. “That’s right,” said Kokkinakis, “we had pink headbands on.” A purist’s nightmare, if ever there was one.
But the reality is these two players are so likeable together because they are also friends. They met as kids at a cup event in Canberra. Kokkinakis, an NBA fan, spotted Kyrgios wearing Michael Jordan gear. While on the road for tournaments in Europe they stayed up until 3am playing Counter-Strike and “talking rubbish to each other”.
This past week has been a lesson on their similarities and differences, and what makes them charming.
“Sometimes [when he] loses his temper I’m there to calm him down,” Kokkinakis said, with Kyrgios sat next to him. “I think it helps both of us, for sure. I think it’s just having somebody he can kind of talk to, relay his feelings when he’s on court.”
Kokkinakis: “No worries. I try to be a steady head out there for him. Also don’t want to take away that energy and that fire because I think that’s what makes Nick, Nick.”
Kyrgios: “That’s the cutest answer I’ve ever heard.”
Kokkinakis: “I’ve got you.”
The Special Ks are a new-age bromance, and there is nothing wrong with this future of tennis.