Conflict Management Lessons from the Djokovic–Kyrgios ‘Bromance’

Novak won over Nick, the person, before winning over Nick, the tennis player – and he did it in his own unconventional way! 

In 2021, Nick Kyrgios called Novak Djokovic a “Tool”; In January 2022, Kyrgios defended Djokovic during the drama in Australia; And, last weekend, Kyrgios called Djokovic a ‘God’. So, how did the 21-time Grand Slam Champion, Djokovic, graduate from being a “Tool” to “God” in the eyes of the bad boy of world tennis? The Wimbledon 2022 Finals had plenty of learnings on how to manage conflict while working with unconventional individuals – here’s my observation from the Djokovic handbook. 

Accepting the Challenge (15 – Love, Djokovic)

The Wimbledon 2022 Final, involving Kyrgios and Djokovic, was meant to be a thriller – emotional, mental and physical. And, arguably, it was quite a ride. While everyone expected Djokovic to sail through, it could have been a very different story, if he hadn’t come prepared to compete against his capricious opponent. Let’s begin with his Semi-Finals post-match conference, where the emcee shot an open-ended question to Djokovic, asking him to comment on the blockbuster final. Djokovic’s first words proved that he was ready to level with his precarious opponent. “There will be fireworks, emotionally, from both sides” – a clear indication that Djokovic was genuinely ready to journey with Kyrgios on this emotional rollercoaster. 

Further, Djokovic acknowledged Kyrgios’s playing style, his serve, his powerful forehand, and the fact that he hadn’t yet won a set against him – an honest, objective evaluation of someone who the tennis world doesn’t hesitate to judge based on prejudice. This response earned Djokovic his first points, and over the next 48 hours, the tennis world would go on to witness a transformational change in Djokovic-Kyrgios’ previously strained sporting relationship.

The three key moments were… 

Pre-match Banter (30–Love, Djokovic) 

On the eve of the big final, Djokovic and Kyrgios met on the practice courts (some players would have avoided talking to Kyrgios before a big match), but Djokovic took the opportunity to express his appreciation for Kyrgios off-court support earlier this year – acknowledging Kyrgios’s courage to stand up for him during his traumatic time at the Australian Open. 

Kyrgios then teases Djokovic on Instagram saying, “We friends now?” Some players on tour might have perceived this as a provocation or even “bullying; but, not Djokovic, who conveniently negates the leading question (once again, with humour), and proposes a dinner date, instead. Remember, Kyrgios loves this naughty, un-tailored banter. Smarting at this opportunity to build rapport and respect, Djokovic goes out on a limb to say, “Winner pays for dinner.”

This exchange, in my opinion, allowed Djokovic to level with Kyrgios as a fellow pro on the tour and not treat him (as many others have) as a truant. In a stereotypical analogy, the Wimbledon Final was like pitching a top-ranker against the back-bencher of tennis, and the top ranker walking across to the back bencher and viewing the situation from his lens. Djokovic knew that Kyrgios (in his best frame of mind) is probably the better tennis player on grass this year, so it would come down to mental fortitude and emotional balance. 

Mid-match Tantrums (40-Love, Djokovic) 

The first set was utterly deceiving – not by what the scoreboard read, but from a temperamental perspective. Kyrgios seemed focussed and unusually composed, but that was before the storm. Djokovic knew that Kyrgios would lose his poise the moment he broke his serve and the inevitable happened.

Kyrgios lost his service game in the second set and all hell broke loose in his mind – he was now charged. His uncharacteristically poised attitude vanished within seconds. What followed were two hours of spectacular tennis shots from Kyrgios, unfortunately eclipsed by the obnoxious, distasteful and borderline psychotic ranting at everyone – except at Djokovic. Interestingly, not once did Kyrgios direct any verbal abuse at his opponent, who he once labelled a “Tool” and a “Bonehead”. 

At the other end, Djokovic showed no sign of being distracted – almost as if he had meditated in a cave for 24 hours before getting on court. He didn’t show any disapproval of Kyrgios’ swearing, he didn’t mock at the continuous self-talk or frown on the audacious shots Kyrgios played. In fact, he applauded some of Kyrgios’ winners and he did it with genuine appreciation. Djokovic had understood that Kyrgios’ rage and angst was meant to fuel his performance and not necessarily influence the opponent. Of course, this is the practice of looking at the conflicting situation from a fresh, unbiased perspective.

Djokovic accepted “Kyrgios, the person” and respected “Kyrgios, the player”, and refused to distract himself with the unnecessary thought of “Kyrgios, the problem”. I’m not sure if it was strategy or not, considering it was the wedding anniversary, but full marks to Jelena Djokovic for wearing pink – a colour that is reported to affect calm and kindness, but also induce a feeling of weakness for the unprepared. A clever win-win moment. 

Kyrgios’ post-match press conference is a testimony to the fact that Djokovic won the mental and emotional game. “He was so composed man, he wasn’t rattled,” Kyrgios said, repeatedly, in frustration and admiration of his opponent. 

Post-match Reconciliation (Game, Djokovic) 

Kyrgios’ first words in front of a packed SW19 crowd at Wimbledon were – “He (Novak) is a bit of a God” – a hyperbole that only an honest emotional-wreck like Kyrgios would utter.

Prior to those words, as he sat on his chair alone, while the organizers prepped for the presentation ceremony, Kyrgios was probably thinking of all his haters who would be trolling him on social media and how we would respond to them. He was obviously devastated, mentally exhausted and just wanting the whole presentation ceremony to end. Knowing Kyrgios’ personality and priorities, the prize money and the runners-up trophy would have still left him cold, sunken and alone – if Djokovic hadn’t humanised him in front of a global audience. 

Djokovic immediately threw the spotlight on Kyrgios – the person he is, the player he has evolved into and the problem that he doesn’t have to be. Djokovic spoke Kyrgios’ language, praised his resilience, applauded his hard work and officiated the “Bromance”, even at the cost of hilariously forgetting to greet his wife on their wedding anniversary. 

Everyone could see that Kyrgios felt true camaraderie and more importantly, a psychological embrace – his smile was genuine, any shame of failure disappeared and the true, fun-loving Kyrgios personality appeared, while he sportingly giggled away to Djokovic’s two-minute stand-up gig.

In my opinion, it was a beautiful transformational post-match valedictory ceremony and it just made up for everything that has been said and written about Kyrgios and Djokovic. The “Battle of the Villains” read one headline earlier in the day; and yet, they both found it in themselves to focus on the beauty of the “person”, and not give in to the label of the “problem”.  

This of course gives them a chance to start afresh as “bros”, as they both claimed on Instagram – but, more importantly, it teaches the tennis world on how to work collaboratively and respectfully with the unconventional, instead of constantly discounting their perceived bad behaviour.  

Novak won over Nick, the person, before winning over Nick, the tennis player – and he did it in his own unconventional way! 

author

Jonathan Rodrigues

Jonathan is an advisory board member for MediateIndia! Jonathan Rodrigues is certified mediator, with an academic background in Psychology and Law at Goa University, India. Jonathan graduated from his LL.M. studies in Mediation and Conflict Resolution with Distinction from the University of Strathclyde, UK. He currently leads The Institute of… MORE

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