The whiff of a changing tennis world doesn’t smell too nice


Australian Nick Kyrgios was at the centre of controversy during the Rogers Cup. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

MONTREAL — The Golden Era in men’s tennis couldn’t last forever.

Now, it seems we may be getting an early sneak peek at what the game and the industry may look like when the days of the Big Four are only memories.

There will still be outstanding tennis, that’s clear, and the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have made such an impact on the way the game is played that it will last for years and years.

But Federer is 34, and Nadal is so banged up after years of brutally demanding tennis that we may have seen the best of him at age 29. That pair formed a brilliant rivalry, with their collision in the 2008 Wimbledon final still regarded by many as the best match ever played. Their matches were ferocious, but both also upheld the highest level of sportsmanship and mutual respect that filtered throughout the game.

Indeed, others who came later, including Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, were undoubtedly influenced by not only the way Federer and Nadal played the game, but by the way in which they comported themselves on and off the court.

Djokovic and Murray seem likely to form the next major rivalry in the game, with Djokovic sitting at No. 1 in the world after winning two of the three Grand Slam titles this year, and Murray back at No. 2 following his efforts over the past week at the Rogers Cup.

They met in Sunday’s final, the 28th time they have played. After eight straight Djokovic wins, this time it was Murray who triumphed in three sets over the sore-armed Serb. With his coach, Amelie Mauresmo, giving birth to a baby boy back in Europe, Murray celebrated the victory, punctuated by winning an 18-minute marathon in the fifth game of the third set to cement his victory.

To make this a truly intriguing rivalry, Murray needs to win more often, so this was a start. That match, however, and the competitions during the week in Montreal and Toronto, weren’t the biggest story. Stronger Canadian performances would have helped alter the narrative, but with all of Canada’s singles players vanquished by mid-week, the story that took over was the controversial confrontation between French Open champion Stan Wawrinka and Australian youngster Nick Kyrgios.

This was, we are to believe, a simmering problem that had its genesis at Roland Garros when Wawrinka apparently questioned Kyrgios’s asthmatic condition, and exploded at the Rogers Cup when Kyrgios was caught on video making a sexual slur aimed at Wawrinka during their match.

Kyrgios’s comments enraged veterans of the tour and opened up speculation about other professional tennis players, revealing the workings and idiosyncrasies of the very small world of pro tennis, which resembles a travelling circus of sorts as it moves from city to city around the world over the course of a tennis season.

Kyrgios’s "sledge" insinuated that his buddy, Thanasi Kokkinakis, had been involved with a woman reportedly linked with Wawrinka, 19-year-old budding tennis star Donna Vecic. Wawrinka, 30, reportedly split with his wife earlier this year — he was enraged when the official French Open website carried details of the story before the tournament this year — and has been linked with Vecic, although neither has confirmed the relationship.

Kokkinakis and Vecic, meanwhile, played mixed doubles last year. After the match last week and Kyrgios’s comments on court, Wawrinka apparently confronted Kyrgios in the locker room, and later took to Twitter to condemn the Australian’s conduct and demand that the ATP take punitive action against him.

"What was said I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy," said Wawrinka.

The next day, Kyrgios was fined $10,000 by the tour, and more could follow as tour officials investigate the incident and his behaviour. But the damage was done, social media went wild, Kyrgios’s brother, Christos, fanned the flames with comments of his own and Kyrgios was booed on court as he lost his next match to John Isner.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the issue seemed to carry over to the next tournament in Cincinnati. Kokkinakis became embroiled in an on-court spat with American player Ryan Harrison, and the two had to be separated after their qualifying round match, won by Kokkinakis.

Their disagreement was related to their match, but Harrison also seemed to suggest the Kyrgios incident had something to do with it.

"You have got to get these kids under control or they’re gonna get hurt," Harrison reportedly told the chair umpire after the match. New York Times writer Ben Rothenberg later quoted Harrison as saying "If (Kokkinakis) wants to get into it, I will bury him. Wawrinka should have decked Kyrgios, and I should deck that kid."

Kyrgios’s biggest sin may have been allowing people to see behind the curtain and into the carefully guarded world of pro tennis. Over the years, players from Andre Agassi to Vince Spadea to Jimmy Connors have written about the inside of the sport, but those were all published after those players were retired. Kyrgios is just starting out, and therein lies an important difference.

None of this, needless to say, is the Federer way, although that’s not to say tennis has been entirely free of problems or controversy over the past decade. Just this month, two well-known Italian players were banned by their national federation for match-fixing, and the issue of doping has quietly sat in the background of the sport for years. There are always rumours of this player being involved with that player, and the marquee romance between Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov and women’s superstar Maria Sharapova hogged headlines until it apparently ended this summer.

Those stories have always been around. But if the antics of Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, not to mention fellow countryman Bernard Tomic, are indicative of the next generation of players, the image of the sport may be about to change drastically.

Harrison, for one, seems concerned.

"I just personally want to see the generation that’s going to take over for whoever this is — Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Fed — I want to see them be as iconic as the guys we have now," he said. "Just do it the right way."

Times are different, after all, and the sport is not immune from the dynamics of pop culture and changing values. Interestingly, on Saturday during his semifinal match with Jeremy Chardy, Djokovic complained that the smell of marijuana was bothering him on court.

"Someone is smoking weed, I can smell it, I’m getting dizzy," he told the chair umpire.

Maybe it was weed, or maybe it was a whiff of a changing sport. As the Golden Era of men’s tennis goes into its final years, what comes next may make many involved in the sport a little dizzy.

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