There is a new face of Australia. Our Prime Minister is Albanese. Our highest test cricket run scorer this year is Usman Khawaja. Our highest ranked golfer this year is Minjee Lee. And our most popular and successful athlete this year is, of course, Ash Barty.
So too Nick Kyrgios is our nation’s collective product and someone only we could create. A loose-unit from the suburbs of Canberra, a Greek-Malaysian tennis extraordinaire.
We know Australia can be a great equaliser – but now – it’s true for tennis too.
Our abundance of land has been used wisely for public tennis court access, combined with an anti-exclusive club culture. The court conditions are, of course, not all perfect, but it’s not beyond the means of the vast majority of us to enjoy the game. I remember being carted around Sydney on Saturday mornings for round-robin competitions. There was no formal umpire or supervision and the gates usually didn’t have locks. It never occurred to me that tennis may be considered an elitist sport.
When I worked in Canberra the public accessed the Parliamentary courts on weekends (when the pollies were away). Also, it was mainly the Labor MPs who would turn out for the social Wednesday morning hit – then Minister Albanese and Don Farrell being part of the working class crew!
Our mass public tennis court system stands in contrast to just about every other nation who are stuck with their elite, gold-plated tennis grounds for the rich and established.
And Wimbledon is the most exclusive of them all – with all the hierarchy, privilege and outdated etiquette only Her Majesty’s courts could demand.
This year, however, came a swarthy Australian, in his Air Jordans, red cap, tattoos and specific – yet well known – ethno-Aussie accent, and thumbed it to the upper class.
But do we identify him as ‘one of us’ and do we credit him with the same Australian-ness as Hewitt and Rafter?
Many wog kids (southern Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern, Latino) were ‘infected’ by African-American culture, and more specifically American basketball culture in the ’90s. We’d buy Chicago Bulls’ caps and adorn ourselves with Adidas pants that had side buttons all the way up to the hip.
This counterculture in the suburbs of Sydney was rarely welcomed.
For me, weekdays in the Sutherland Shire were for ‘Australian’ friends – bush trails, wearing a green and gold uniform, beach after school, and being invited over to your mates’ places for tea (dinner). Weekends were for ethnic activities – church in broken English, big meals, visiting family, trading basketball cards, hanging out in Brighton Le Sands… and of course tennis.
Both are part of the Australian story.
And now, there are a myriad of kids and second-generation Australians who will have watched, and even played, tennis for the very first time because of Kyrgios. In early rounds of Wimbledon, some stadiums were close to empty, the Kyrgios stadium, however, was always full. At this year’s Australian Open men’s doubles final, Kyrigos’ opponents conceded that they had never played in a stadium ‘so packed’.
The court is electric, the sport is re-defined, the colosseum filled for an Australian gladiator of our time.
Sport can be a refuge from violence and dispossession. America casts aside being in the minority if you can thrill and win – think Jordan, Bryant, LeBron and the Williams sisters. France, with its banlieues and endemic inequality for migrants, celebrates in the streets the exploits of Zidane, Mbappe and Pogba.
Sport can also be a window into a world reimagined – on what society could become. Die Mannschaft (the German soccer team) showed what a unified Germany could accomplish when it won the World Cup with a team of Turkish, Tunisian, Polish, Albanian and Czech backgrounds.
What the Kyrgios revolution offers is a largeness about being Australian, not in the volume of his voice but in the fearless audacity of facing the world in your own way – no longer as a supplicant to the colonial world order.
What we can hope for is that Kyrgios’ Wimbledon loss becomes the catalyst for greater things. That it turns into a hunger to win next time. That it produces a more focused and tempered player, because we now know that he has the talent to be one of the greatest of our generation.
It’s also a reminder about the courts in our regions. The Mullumbimby courts continue to be in desperate need of repair post-floods. In Byron, it surprises me that Council has handed over the keys to a private provider without any local club or player oversight.
Publicly run tennis is part of the Australian story, and Australians such as Kyrgios and Barty are products of it. The alternative is Her Majesty’s Wimbledon where the luck of to-whom-you-were-born defines your life so totally.
♦ Damian Kassabgi is a member of the Byron Bay tennis club and a former policy adviser to prime ministers Rudd and Gillard.