You had to wonder about Kyle Edmund’s preparation for his third-round match. If this extremely unemotional player tries to achieve Zen-like calm before stepping onto the court then that must have been virtually impossible given he’s a major football fan and England were bidding for World Cup glory 2,500 miles away in Russia.
Then again, because he’s extremely unemotional maybe he went the other way, seeking out buzzy, stressy thrills like a 12-year-old wired to Fortnite by watching the game in the locker-room and kicking every ball with Harry Kane and the Three Lions.
Whatever his approach, it wasn’t quite enough against Novak Djokovic. He claimed the opening set to send a crowd high on the football victory into greater frenzy. But the 12-times Grand Slammer spoiled the Centre Court party and with scowls and abrasiveness seemed to relish doing it, winning 4-6. 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
Afterwards, the Serb claimed he reacted to the home fans because they’d been “unfair” to him. He expected them to back their man, no problem with that, but criticised those who’d whistled and pretended to cough when he was about to serve.
Over the last 48 hours England v Sweden had been the elephant on the court – the football game the All England Club didn’t want to talk about, didn’t want to acknowledge was happening, having vowed it wouldn’t be screening anywhere this side of the handsome gates of the home of tennis in order to protect their sport’s integrity. In the end England got the job done without extra-time and penalties so no one in the crowd would be sneaking a peak at their smartphones. Everyone could concentrate on the tennis and Edmund could concentrate on trying to overcome Djokovic.
As early as the first game there was a daunting aspect to Djokovic, and some trembling in the stands, as if due to his injury problems they’d forgotten all about his doomy power. In the second game, unforced errors by Edmund threatened his serve but a backhand biffed down the line helped save the break points and lifted the crowd.
A memorable England double-triumph was still some way off but Sir Bobby Charlton returned to the posh seats from a tea-break in time to see Edmund batter a winner at the net. Usually there are lots of football types in the Royal Box on what has become Celebs Saturday. Maybe there were lots of call-offs as the World Cup team made progress but the 1966 hero, being a proper gentleman, was honouring the invite.
He saw Edmund hang in there, grow into the match and strike two scorching forehands in quick succession. “It’s coming home, Kyle,” was the shout from the stands as he achieved break-point on the Djokovic serve, only to then get too excited. Two more glimmers came but vanished, but he pounced on the fourth opportunity – maybe it was the Sir Bobby influence – and Centre Court erupted. Gutsiness kept him ahead. The stands greeted a net cord for their man like a Dele Alli or Sir Bobby goal. Djokovic thrashed at a dead ball, the crowd went “Woo!” pantomime-style and he threw them a heavy glower. Edmund – and this was the fourth Slam running he was the last Brit standing, man or woman – held serve for the first set.
What goes around comes around regarding net-cords and Djokovic was next to get lucky but Edmund held both nerve and serve. He was fist-pumping after points more than in his previous game, possibly drunk on Russia, while some in the crowd were simply drunk. The players traded solid service games until the eighth. Edmund somehow contrived his most stunning shot thus far to pick up a Djokovic drive but the latter gained the advantage on the fourth break point. He served out the set to “equalise” with more dark looks and the help of yet another net-cord.
The second last Brit at the tournament, Johanna Konta, had offered to bake a cake for Djokovic who’s severely gluten-free. “He’s no-sugar, no-dairy so I could make it with Xylitol, coconut milk, almond milk,” she said, acknowledging what would be a culinary challenge. Making it as heavy as possible would maybe have slowed him down, but then again, maybe not
In the third set there were worrying signs of the old dominating Djokovic who broke Edmund right away. The crowd were flat – they’d gone too soon. Then Djokovic broke again. He dinked a drop-shot – classic Djoko – and put a finger to his ear to encourage applause which came sporadically. The set was his.
What could Edmund do now? Well, he won a point despite there being no less than four things wrong with it, but the former champ, who’d been blowing kisses to the crowd and not getting them back, kept his cool. Edmund loved the hyped-up atmosphere. “It was great, really loud, I enjoyed it,” he said. He’d kept a check on the progress of the football. “It’s great England have made the semi-finals but I was here to play tennis. It was fine margins. Maybe I could have been more aggressive, but that’s easier said than done.”