WIMBLEDON, England—The men’s singles final Sunday lived up to its billing.
There was entertainment. There was incredibly clean and creative tennis, starting with a real flourish of Nick Kyrgios’s style edging Novak Djokovic’s substance and experience in the first set.
There were no outrageous outbursts or a player rifling balls at his opponent. No one “throwing a match.” In fact, there were small moments when Kyrgios made Djokovic temporarily look like a bland player.
But then, Djokovic went into Djokovic Mode.
“I played a hell of a first set and put myself in a position to take a stranglehold of the match, but he is just really composed,” Kyrgios told reporters after the match. “He didn’t do anything amazing today, but he was never rattled—that is his greatest strength. … Hats off to him. That was a hell of a match. I wasn’t able to play those clutch points well today.”
And that’s really what it came down to: the match turned on a few critical games and points, and went in favor of the player who is older, more experienced and much more buttoned up in those important moments.
Djokovic went on to win 4–6, 6–3, 6–4, 7–6 (3) for his fourth straight Wimbledon title and seventh overall, tying him with Pete Sampras and putting him one behind Roger Federer.
“Every single time, it gets more and more meaningful and special,” Djokovic said during his on-court interview. “It always has been, and will be, the most special tournament in my heart. The one that motivated me and inspired me to start playing tennis in a small little mountain resort in Serbia.”
His stats and place in history are becoming more meaningful, as well. At age 35, he becomes the second-oldest player to win Wimbledon (Federer was the oldest), he played in his record-setting 32nd major final and now pulls within one of Rafael Nadal with 21 Grand Slam titles.
We make too big a deal of “power” on grass courts. The real virtue on the surface is movement. Djokovic is so flexible, is so athletic and anticipates so well, the grass does wonders for his game. He can play offense, he can play defense and he, underratedly, can play volleys (he actually had a slight edge on Kyrgios in net points Sunday, 60% compared to 56%). Djokovic might have been onto something with that Mission Impossible-like plane move. While it’s too early to proclaim Djokovic as the “best ever” on grass—Federer still has eight titles here—we wouldn’t even be having this conversation five years ago. Djokovic is the youngest of the Big Three (Federer is 40, Rafa, 36), but whatever the chronological difference is, it seems more than that right now.
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There were questions around whether Kyrgios would be completely paralyzed by the moment, playing in his first Grand Slam final in the best run of his career. He even brought up that possibility, but that wasn’t the case at all Sunday. He was terrific in the first set, where he had only five unforced errors and broke Djokovic’s serve.
“He is a tennis genius,” Goran Ivanišević, Djokovic’s coach and a winner here in 2001, said of Kyrgios. “You can’t prepare for Nick Kygrios, he is the best server in the game by far. … It’s impossible to create tactics [against him].”
But for the rest of the match, Kyrgios couldn’t sustain his level. There wasn’t a full-blown Kyrgrios combustion, but rather a few strange moments, including getting vocal at his box for not sufficiently supporting him when he got up 40-love in games. It is not what you usually see in a tennis match, let alone in a Wimbledon final, which is why people are compelled to watch. But it didn’t necessarily help his tennis, creating a kind of “tell” for Djokovic, who won the third frame in one of the cleanest sets of tennis you will ever see someone play—he won 94% of his first serves and had only two unforced errors.
In the fourth set, Djokovic showed why he is the greatest closer in the sport. He knew this match would have been a lot more difficult if it went five sets—an already 60–40 pro-Kyrgios crowd would have grown and he’d be fighting back the thoughts of how close he came to history in the fourth set. As much as we talk about Nadal’s mental toughness, Djokovic’s is of a different variety but just as effective.
As Kyrgios described playing against Djokovic on Sunday and against the Big Three in general, he said: “You win the first set and you feel like you have to climb Mount Everest to get it done.”
Whether the Australian will be able to build on this will be a big question going forward. Wimbledon provided tangible proof of what would happen if Kyrgios put it all together on the court. Does this real taste of success give him the motivation to push himself and sustain him?
On the court, some people realize Kyrgios can be his own worst enemy and that it’s not enjoyable to watch an athlete squander their talent. Post-match, Djokovic literally turned to the player he battled against for three hours and encouraged him to take his career seriously. Kyrgios, 27, is not a kid anymore, but there was a realization this week that, when he is taking things seriously, it is to the sport’s benefit and he brings an electricity to the court that is undeniable. He polarizes large swaths of people—they love him or hate him. It is all uncomfortable to talk about in general (or the silly tennis talk around the sportsmanship of underhand serves and the like) because of the pending domestic abuse allegations Kyrgios faces and when he is set to appear in court next month. Where he goes from here will partially be dictated by that.
In completely different and non-comparable circumstances, Djokovic is currently unable to play in another Slam until the 2023 French Open. Unless he chooses to get a COVID-19 vaccination or there are policy changes in New York and Australia, he won’t be eligible. He showed a brilliant few weeks of tennis, but we don’t know when we’ll see him again on one of these big four stages.
But, for today, at least, he is the once and future king, and the great tennis GOAT debate continues.
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