ATP punts when it comes to punishing Nick Kyrgios

The ATP has a decision-making problem, but it has an even bigger Nick Kyrgios problem. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The ATP found itself facing two unappetizing options when it came to deciding what punitive action to take against serial rule violator Nick Kyrgios. That may be why it took the organization so long to act, even though it's final decision was to punt.

Kyrgios's outrageous behavior this year was clear and well-documented. His outbursts in Cincinnati alone cost the 24-year-old Aussie $113,000, the highest such levy since 1990. The 16-week suspension announced on Thursday seemed inevitable. The additional fine of $25,000 also seemed preordained. The unforeseen outcome of the long investigation was that Kyrgios was also unsuspended in the very same press release. The suspension will kick in only if Kyrgios screws up again over the course of the next six months.

In effect, Kyrgios got a suspended sentence and six months' probation. He can even return to busting up rackets on the court (racket abuse itself won't constitute a violation of his probation).

Law-and-order advocates will say this resolution is neither swift nor just. The ATP has a decision-making problem, but it has an even bigger Nick Kyrgios problem. While polarizing, Kyrgios is a riveting figure who has committed no actual crime. And he's wildly popular with fans starved for theatrical characters at the end of an era long dominated by players who are loathe to acting out on court.

The fan base built by Kyrgios will be thrilled with the decision. Multitudes love his mercurial, rebellious nature, self-mocking humor and boundary-free human interactions as much as his electric shot-making.

A further twist to confound the ATP: The players themselves have been tolerant of Kyrgios' behavior. He's done things on the court that would have earned an Ilie Nastase or John McEnroe a sock in the nose, or at least a threat of that, but his peers refuse to call the law on him.

Kyrgios has ingratiated himself to the rank-and-file, as he showed with his incessant cheerleading for his Team World mates at the recent Laver Cup. By all accounts, he's happiest in a team environment where the burdens of being good at a sport of individuals are somewhat alleviated. Almost everyone envies his talent. Many probably wish they could so brazenly defy the three clean-Gene titans of the game, a posture Kyrgios backs up by beating them with some regularity.

The ATP clearly tried to have it both ways in this ruling. A six-week investigation culminating in, essentially, a warning to "shape up or ship out" hardly seems an appropriate reaction from an organization that has an extremely precise code of conduct and a clearly defined mechanism for enforcing it via real-time penalties and fines. But there are no written-in-stone retributions for Kyrgios-grade infractions.

The procedures used to evaluate and determine punitive action are more complicated than they may appear. Among other things, the ATP allows players under investigation time to mount a response. Why? The ATP is acting as judge and jury over one of its own, and it may suffer as much as the accused from the decision. There are also potential legal issues to address. But how much investigation did it require to prove that Kyrgios threw a chair on the court and was defaulted in Rome and uttered a blue streak of obscenities, left the court and spit at an official in Cincinnati?

The ATP declined to discuss the details of the Kyrgios decision further.

"It's not something we're looking to comment on," Simon Higson, the ATP's communications representative, told ESPN.com. "We see it as an officiating matter."

It's clear, though, that the organization is choosing to seek reform and rehabilitation over retribution. Another element in the ATP's decision: Kyrgios is obliged to receive support from a "mental coach" during ATP events during his six-month probation and to consult with one during the offseason.

That will strike some as an absurdly soft punishment. But the ATP's rules aren't laws, and this process isn't, strictly speaking, a legal one. Lead investigator Gayle Bradshaw, the ATP executive in charge of rules and competition, has a mandate to determine what is best for everyone -- the athlete, the sport, the integrity of the game, et al. Most people aren't haters. They agree that having Kyrgios on the court is in everyone's best interest, at least until he does something offensive or stupid.

The ATP was not just investigating the obvious during this six-week period. It was also inadvertently feeding rumors of cynical wheeling and dealing, like the one that had the ATP deferring its decision on Kyrgios until after his participation in Laver Cup in order to keep Roger Federer (the Laver Cup founder) happy. It's hard to escape the fact that anybody could have determined 20 minutes after the Cincinnati incident that Kyrgios was guilty of committing "aggravated behavior" by establishing the requisite "pattern of [bad] behavior" over the past 12 months. It was all documented.

The ATP ought to be more up front about how it chooses to handle cases of egregiously bad behavior. Maybe a sufficiently serious, cut-and-dried series of documented violations ought to automatically trigger a suspension instead of sending the ATP scrambling to have it both ways.

Maybe the obligation to consult with a mental coach will benefit Kyrgios less than knowing exactly what punishments, including suspension, would kick in from his behavior.

There's only so much you can do to save a guy, especially when it's from himself.