Novak Djokovic v Nick Kyrgios: As a panto villains’ face-off it was disappointing - as a tennis match it was terrific

On paper, it certainly didn’t appear to be the dream final the All England Club craved to commemorate 100 years of Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

Novak Djokovic celebrates after his fourth Wimbledon men's singles triumph in a row.
Novak Djokovic celebrates after his fourth Wimbledon men's singles triumph in a row.

A panto villain face-off to find out who would metaphorically lock the most small children in a cage then figuratively boil them in a pot.

But, in common with other sports, tennis doesn’t happen on paper and Novak Djokovic triumphed for his fourth men’s singles title in a row and seventh overall to return the debate to his unerring brilliance.

Nick Kyrgios, though, played a huge part in a contest of often savage beauty which must have had even the most etiquette-strict and decorum-obsessed spluttering in appreciation.

The man who says he both loves and hates tennis, who mostly plays with a grimace and who began the championships with a fine for spitting at a spectator, had this crowd drooling with his verve, daring and of course his trick-shots.

In the end, however, after a minute over three hours, and now just one Slam behind Rafael Nadal, it was super Serb’s title by a score of 4-6 6-3 6-4 7-6 (7-3). “I thought I played well but the guy’s a god,” admitted Kyrgios.

After all that gone before in this tournament, and in their personal rivalry, fireworks had been promised. It was the man we love to hate – Djokovic – versus someone even more complicated than that. It was the multi-earringed guy with the sleeve tattoo – Kyrgios – against the fellow who won’t put anything impure either on his body or in it, including a Covid vaccine.

One of them wore his cap like a surf bum, the other like a pernickety lifeguard. And it was the player who’s stayed in the pub until 4am on the eve of matches – Kyrgios again – standing across the net from the one who doesn’t get back from the Buddhist yoga retreat until a wild and crazy half past two in the afternoon.

Fireworks, they said. Well, the first game was a bit of a damp squib, Djokovic double-faulting, Kyrgios over-hitting. He was worried with his semi walkover about having too long to think about the final. How many times had he played it in his head? But his first service game can’t have been any livelier in the imagination: ace, underarm serve, gem of a drop volley.

That serve; it’s something else. In the roll-call of greatest-ever Serbians Djokovic often comes second behind Nikola Tesla, the inventor who tamed lightning. But Djokovic taming the Australian’s clobbering delivery – despite 40 aces in all – might require the list to be re-ordered.

Very quickly, the rallying was superlative. Crashing hits with whip and dip, returned with interest. Then, fifth game, the sniff of a break for Kyrgios. Double fault, and he fairly bounced back to his chair. Here was a test. Holding serve against the great returner. To love, no problem. Feeling cocky – feeling Nick Kyrgios – he tried a tweener. It didn’t work. He was banking on his serve to take the set and with a flurry of aces he was almost there. One more did it.

Just at the end of the set, tension cranking up, he looked to his box, hands outstretched for support. In previous matches he’d excoriated his team but this was the first time in the final he’d even acknowledged their presence. The match settled down. Serve became king. How about another rally, guys? But with his slouching style, Kyrios could sometimes be too casual, feet not moving. Concentration would be needed against Prof. Focus. We wanted a rally and we got two, one after the other, the longest of the match until that moment and Djokovic won both. That sent an electrical surge through the defending champ and next game he broke Kyrgios. More gesturing from him, and then more of those nonchalant bombs. Four chances came on the Djokovic serve in one game but he couldn’t take any, and Djokovic levelled the contest.

Could his opponent avoid distraction, real or imagined? For four decades, John McEnroe’s “You can NOT be serious!” has remained unchallenged as Wimbledon’s most notorious bad-boy outburst but early on in this tournament it seemed under threat. You can NOT be Kyrgios? Wanna bet?

For when a serial winner stands on your neck, he will keep pressing down. Kyrgios was hitting more shots drawing gasps of amazement than Djokovic but the scoreboard wasn’t acknowledging this. Djokovic was serving better now, and returning the way he always does.

There was no bonus point, for instance, for the tweener, having chased a lob to the baseline, which won Kyrgios the point and got Centre on its feet. Djokovic, cap correctly fitted, shook his head at that. Kyrgios got irked by a yelp from the crowd and we thought he might blow up. Instead he banged two more aces. Next service game, though, 40-love up, there was a minor explosion. Well, you try playing Djokovic, surely the prototype for the first AI tennis robot.

The endgame seemed inevitable. Djokovic can start sluggishly but once ahead when does he ever falter? His level had gone up, Kyrgios’ had dropped, though there was a sweet crosscourter to clinch the first game of the fourth set, applauded by his opponent. But winners like this were becoming fewer and fewer. Djokovic was sending him to the far corners, the grunts accompanying his returns growing ever louder and more despairing.

This was a thriller and not the shocker that was feared. Kyrgios in the final had provoked trembling similar to when that intruder sneaked into Buckingham Palace and sat on the Queen’s bed. Some places are beyond sacred and Wimbledon is one of them.

As it turned out, he charmed Centre and didn’t scare the kids. Who knows, maybe Prince George went home saying: “Mummy, can I get a ginormous tattoo like Nick?”

Steady, son, let’s start with a tennis racket.

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