The Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios has again found himself in hot water after being fined $16,500 by the Association of Tennis Professionals (the “ATP”) for his conduct in his defeat by Mischa Zverev in a second-round match at the Shanghai Masters.

During the match, Kyrgios appeared not to put effort into his serves or groundstrokes, at one point patting a gentle serve across the net without waiting for his opponent to return the ball before walking to his chair. The umpire, Ali Nilli, was reported to have said to Kyrgios:

“You can’t play like that, OK? That’s not professional. This is a professional tournament, we have to act professional and play with your best effort the whole time.”

Kyrgios then continued in his attempts to finish the match as quickly as possible, at one point asking Nilli to call the game off “so I can finish this match and go home.”

This conduct led to an argument with a spectator who told Kyrgios to “respect the game, respect the people.” Kyrgios replied by saying:

“Go home then. I didn’t ask you to come.”

As a result of these indiscretions, Kyrgios was fined $10,000 for showing “a lack of best efforts” in the match, as well as $5,000 for the verbal abuse of the spectator and $1,500 for unsportsmanlike conduct.

In the press-conference that followed the match, Kyrgios appeared unrepentant and was reported to have said:

“I don’t owe them anything. It’s my choice. If you don’t like it, I didn’t ask you to come watch. Just leave. You want to buy a ticket? Come watch me. You know I’m unpredictable. It’s your choice. I don’t owe you anything. Doesn’t affect how I sleep at night.”

But is Kyrgios right? Is it true that he, as a sportsman, does not owe the spectators the right to a fair, properly fought contest?

The ATP disagrees. The ATP Code of Conduct (the “Code”) is clear in terms of what players are allowed, and are not allowed, to do during ATP events:

  • Article 8.03(g)(i) states that: “Players shall at all times conduct themselves in a sportsmanlike manner and give due regard to the authority of officials and the rights of opponents, spectators and others. Unsportsmanlike conduct is defined as any misconduct by a player that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the success of a tournament, ATP and/or the Sport. In addition, unsportsmanlike conduct shall include, but not be limited to, the giving, making, issuing, authorizing or endorsing any public statement having, or designed to have, an effect prejudicial or detrimental to the best interest of the tournament and/or the officiating thereof.” (Emphasis added).
  • Article 8.03(h)(i) states that: “A player shall use his best efforts during the match when competing in a tournament. Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $10,000 for each violation.” Further, Article 8.03(g)(ii) states that: “…In circumstances that are flagrant and particularly injurious to the success of a tournament, or are singularly egregious, a single violation of this section shall also constitute the player Major Offense of Aggravated Behavior.”
  • Article 8.03(d)(i) states that: “Players shall not at any time directly or indirectly verbally abuse an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or any other person within the precincts of the tournament site.” (Emphasis added).

The Code is drafted so as to protect the right of the spectator to enjoy a fair match between two players. This is the very right that Kyrgios suggests does not exist.

Kyrgios later sought to excuse his behaviour by stating that he was: “Physically tired, mentally tired…I just tapped out a little bit, I guess.” Undoubtedly, sportsmen and women at the top of their respective sports have off-days. The tiredness that accompanies elite level sport (particularly given the attendant travel obligations) will take its toll on player performance. From this perspective, it is entirely reasonable that athletes are not able to compete at an optimum level in every match. Yet there is a distinction to be drawn between marginal differences in performance and matches where players simply do not try to win.

Aside from the argument that spectators have paid to watch a spectacle that is fairly fought between the participants, there is a more fundamental reason for rules such as those set out in the Code. The fear of match-fixing, spot-fixing and corruption looms large over almost all major sporting events. It is a basic precaution against the threat to the integrity of those events to ensure that competitors give their best efforts at all times.

There is of course no suggestion that Kyrgios was involved in any sort of corruption offence. While Kyrgios may simply have been exhausted and irritable, he will surely reflect when this matter has settled down that spectators are entitled to observe a fair encounter, if only to remove the doubt that what has been seen was a genuine sporting encounter. After all, when the bells and whistles, commercial agreements and hyperbole are removed, what is the appeal of sport if not the chance to witness a fair duel between competitors who are trying to win?