As much as we might profess a pure appreciation of sport in all its subtle beauty and sometimes even its sheer brutality, fandom is in many instances a zero-sum game with our preferences dictated by blind loyalty or informed by personal ideals.
Love the Blues, hate the Maroons.
Love Steph, hate LeBron.
Love West Coast, hate Fremantle.
Love Folau, hate idolaters.
And, in recent times, we have a popular addition to the list of comparisons, whereby admiration and affection for one competitor in some eyes instantly disqualifies any appreciation for another.
Love Barty, hate Kyrgios.
That Ash Barty’s brilliant French Open triumph came just before another Kyrgios meltdown — this time a trademark racquet-tossing umpire-abusing display at London’s Queen’s Club — prompted a reflexive and perhaps justifiable comparison between the wrinkle-proof new champion and the game’s enfant terrible.
Barty’s exemplary conduct, so the narrative went, held a mirror to Kyrgios and his reflection was about as flattering as the “before” picture in a weight loss commercial.
Kyrgios hadn’t turned up at the French Open because “clay courts suck”. Barty had travelled to what most thought was her least-suited grand slam venue, dug in and left with the trophy in her racquet bag.
Barty subsequently became the world number one. Kyrios, by some assessments, will only ever achieve that ranking on a list of public enemies.
In her work ethic, humility and just sheer public likeability, Barty is to many everything Kyrgios is not. She is, to summarise the many profiles and other arms-lengths observations that followed her conquest at Roland Garros, Australian in the way Australians like to see themselves.
Kyrgios? Talented, sure. But also petulant, uncommitted, erratic and, recently, scathing in his opinions of some of the game’s greatest players.
The beloved Rafa Nadal? “Super salty” and a bad loser.
The esteemed Novak Djokovic? Has “a sick obsession with wanting to be liked”.
Which prompted some to point to the grand slam scoreboard which reads: Nadal/Djokovic 33 titles, Kyrgios 0.
So the manner of Barty’s success has become prime evidence in the public prosecution of Kyrgios and even used to further the particularly absurd notion that he should be booted from the sport altogether.
Yet — and I’m under my desk in the emergency brace position as I write this — rather than having to choose between Barty’s quiet dignity and Kyrgios’s temperamental brilliance, surely there is a place for two such contrasting personalities in a sport that supposedly celebrates individuality, if not in the affections of all who will watch them at Wimbledon in coming days.
Surely it is possible to simultaneously adore Barty’s humble prowess and also enjoy Kyrgios’s pyrotechnics without breaching some contractual obligation only to support those rare gems who provide an idealised version of what tennis and even sport itself should be.
Adopting such an attitude does not mean you have no right to question and even condemn the worst of Kyrgios’s excesses or even to employ yet another Barty comparison and suggest he might benefit from some time out of the game as she did.
But so long as Kyrgios remains within the admittedly flimsy boundaries of tennis’s behavioural rules, why deprive yourself of the genuine pleasure of beholding the ballistic way he approaches the game and, in particular, serves it up to the very best players when he gives himself that opportunity.
Should Kyrgios play either Nadal or Djokovic at Wimbledon, their on-court response to his intemperate remarks will be compelling. Do they crush the lippy upstart or take his bait? Just as likely, does he rise to the big occasion yet again?
“I think if I played Novak he’d be pleased to get one win against me,” said Kyrgios, who has a 2-0 record against the world number one. Which in turn gives you some idea how little contrition the Canberran feels about his comments.
Naturally those who have a disdain for Kyrgios’s public persona are unlikely to change their views until the 24 year-old converts his talent into the kind of success Barty has achieved in a very different way, and perhaps not even then.
But expecting Kyrgios to change is like waiting for Anna Kournikova’s second serve. It wouldn’t come quickly if it came at all.
“My opinions won’t change,” Kyrgios said recently. “In society today, when someone is being honest it causes a bit of a stir. I just say what I think and I just go about it the way I go about it.”
As for Barty? Kyrgios admires her as much as everyone else, even as her wonderful exploits and pristine demeanour are used in unflattering evaluations of his own vastly contrasting and endlessly controversial style.
“I grew up with her … we were travelling to Thailand through Asia and playing juniors,” said Kyrgios upon Barty’s French Open victory.
“I always knew she was going to be a champion, just how bad she wanted it.”
You might seize upon those words to highlight just how little Kyrgios has seemed to “want it”. Or you can put aside the innate prejudices and tempting comparisons, stop being disgusted and allow yourself to be entertained.
After all, it doesn’t have to be Barty or Kyrgios at Wimbledon any more than it has to be strawberries or cream.
Catch up on all the results and issues from the sporting weekend on Offsiders at 10:00am on Sunday on ABC TV.