Tennis is supposed to be pristine and gentlemanly. The ultimate country club sport, with its hushed crowds, polite cheering, and white-on-white outfits, will never be confused with a roller derby. It’s proper. It’s sophisticated. And it’s a sport where, over time, some of the nastiest professional athletes have come to play.
Make no mistake, if you are considered a bad boy in any other sport, you own street cred as a pretty mean man. Football bad boys like Bill Romanowski inflicted horrible pain on other players. Hockey bad boys like Sean Avery were known to instigate fist fights to protect teammates (or for maybe no reason at all). Basketball bad boys like the Detroit Pistons of the 1980s bludgeoned their way to immortality.
But tennis? Throw some rackets, argue a call, get bleeped on live TV, wear a controversial shirt — it’s really that simple. And we can’t get enough of these guys.
“It’s bad enough people think of this as a sissy sport,” John McEnroe said in 1985. “But emotions are part of the game, part of the intensity. If some people had their way, they would turn us into robots. That’s not what it’s about. Tennis has changed a lot. We can’t go back to the game of 50 years ago. You have to face reality.”
American sports fans have always embraced the bad boys of tennis, the generational players who have been able to combine rare skill, gamesmanship, and attitude into a sort of vodka tonic that’s injected life into the sport through the years. We fall over ourselves to crown the next bad boy of tennis every few years.
Partly because men’s tennis is devoid of many electric personalities and partly because the tennis bad boy is a nostalgic nod to a time when Jimmy Connors and McEnroe were giants of the sport, we are anxious for the next bad one to emerge.
Nick Kyrgios is today’s heir apparent. He’s only 20 years old, he’s been a pro for about five minutes, but some of the Australian’s antics at Wimbledon recently — sophomoric behavior, lethargic play, moody press conferences, and the requisite smashing of rackets — have landed him atop the list of tennis’s next bad boy.
At the same time as Kyrgios’s emergence in the tennis world, Andy Samberg stars in the new HBO tennis mockumentary 7 Days in Hell. Samberg, a lifelong tennis fan, plays the fictional Aaron Williams, who wears wild Andre Agassi hair and conducts himself like a total jerk on the court. His character is fueled by sex and drugs. He’s the ultimate bad boy of tennis. But Williams is fake. McEnroe’s anger was real.
Through the years, tennis has produced plenty of genuine bad boys that lived hard, played hard, and were known from time to time, to argue calls harder than anyone else. Here are the top 10 bad boys of tennis history.