The Nightmare of Novak
There was a point in Sunday’s Wimbledon final that almost nobody will talk about. It was not a pivotal point, not a break-point, not a point they will show in the television highlights package. It was the third set of a turbulent but still dead-even match between Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios. Djokovic trailed 2-3 and was serving at love-all.
That’s a funny score — love-all. It’s hard to say how much actual love was present at Centre Court. Kyrgios spent the London afternoon screaming at his player’s box, repeatedly asking them for more love; it seemed like no matter how much they cheered and applauded and praised and hailed, they could not offer enough love to sustain him.
And as for Djokovic, well, love is such a big part of his story. It seems vivid and clear that he never wanted to be the bad guy. And yet, that is the part so often given to him by fate and timing and his own stubbornness and rash passion. He always seemed to be on the other side of the net from heroes, from Andy Murray trying to win Wimbledon for Britain, from Roger Federer battling the years, from Rafael Nadal digging deep into himself.
Beyond that, Novak would have his blow-ups on the court, one of them leading to a careless strike of the ball that hit a linesperson and got him defaulted from the U.S. Open. He can be one of the most thoughtful and generous interviews in sport, and yet Djokovic sometimes says things that conjure up the line about him from former No. 3 player Nikolay Davydenko: “Sometimes, I don’t understand what’s going on in his head.”
Most of all, these days, Djokovic refuses still to get vaccinated, and wherever you stand on that refusal, it got him deported from Australia and will likely keep him out of New York for the U.S. Open this August. He accepts that fate, too.
That’s not to say that Djokovic lacks fans; he has millions of passionate fans all over the world. His game is too beautiful, his will too strong, his mind too sharp, his graciousness too present — people are drawn to him. But, you sense, it has never been as many as he might have hoped as a boy playing and dreaming tennis in war-torn Serbia.
“It is no secret,” he says as impassively as he can, “that I am not usually the fans’ favorite out there.” You sense that he wishes it were different.
The score was love-all in the sixth game of the third set, the players were on serve, and the fans were still settling back into their seats after the lively change-over. Kyrgios had spent that change-over asking the chair umpire to have a fan removed because she had been talking to him while he served. “She looks like she’s had 700 drinks,” he said when the chair umpire asked him to point her out.*
*Leave it to the London tabloids to find the woman, a Polish medical lawyer named Ania Palus, who insisted she had only two drinks and had actually been trying to encourage Kyrgios.
It had been an odd match. The expectation had been that Kyrgios, playing in his first-ever Grand Slam final, would come out shaky and nervous (he had never even played in a Grand Slam semifinal — he advanced to this final because Nadal pulled out of their semifinal matchup with an injury).
But it was actually Djokovic, playing in his 32nd Grand Slam final — most ever in men’s tennis — who looked edgy. In the fifth game, he double-faulted on break point. He was helpless against Kyrgios’ incredible serve, winning just five points the entire set and getting aced seven times. Kyrgios breezily won the first set, 6-4.
When Nick Kyrgios plays this way, he can and will beat anybody on planet earth. He and Djokovic had played twice before and — as the pundits mentioned time and again in the lead-up to the Wimbledon final — Kyrgios won both of those matches handily, without ever even having his serve broken.
But both men knew this was different. Those matches were played in 2017, when Djokovic lost his mojo for a while. Those were best-of-three-set matches in Indian Wells and Acapulco, both on hard courts, neither of them anything close to a tournament final.
This was Centre Court, Wimbledon, the most famous tennis court on earth, the final of the most prestigious tennis tournament on earth, and this was a best-of-five-set match. The Royal Family was watching. Tom Cruise was watching. Djokovic had not lost on this court since the movie “Frozen” came out.
And the question on everybody’s mind was: Can Nick Kyrgios keep playing this way?
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Kyrgios’ level did not drop much in the second set … but Djokovic lifted his. He is widely regarded as the best returner of serve in the history of tennis. And in the third game of the set, Djokovic returned four straight serves.
On the first, he pulled Kyrgios off the court and forced a forehand error.
On the second, Kyrgios tried to blast a winner and instead made another forehand error.
Djokovic hit a backhand winner on the third.
Djokovic hit a backhand winner again and broke Kyrgios for the first time ever.
Kyrgios actually had four chances to break back in the set. But Djokovic repeatedly attacked his forehand in the biggest moments, and Kyrgios missed four forehands. Djokovic won the set, 6-3.
And then we get to the point I think about now. Kyrgios, it seems to me, came out resolved. He’d had his argument with the chair umpire. He was fired up. And the greatest tennis players seem to know when the moment is theirs to be captured. Even us weekend hackers can sometimes feel it. If Kyrgios could break here, he could take hold of this match. I think he decided to take the moment, right here, right now.
Here’s how the point went:
Djokovic served and Kyrgios went for broke, absolutely blasting a forehand return crosscourt into the corner. That’s a winner against almost anybody.
Djokovic stretched and barely pushed it back to the center of the court.
Kyrgios ran to the ball, leaped and blasted a backhand into the opposite corner. It was a gorgeous shot, one only a handful of players in the game could have hit. That’s a winner against almost anybody.
Djokovic chased it down and, with a loud grunt, punched a short backhand into the court.
Kyrgios stepped in and whipped a forehand into the other corner, another terrific shot. It was the third shot in a row that would have put away a tennis mortal. But it wasn’t quite the quality of the first two. There’s a great scene in “The Hustler” where Fast Eddie is playing in his epic pool match against Minnesota Fats, and he hits a safety.
“Didn’t leave you much,” Eddie says cockily, with a big wide grin.
Fats looks over the table.
“You left enough,” he said, and he went on a long run.
Kyrgios left enough. Djokovic not only chased the ball down, he slid into it and then cracked it at such a sharp angle, many in the crowd involuntarily yelped.
Kyrgios was stunned. He was expecting, if anything, a floating ball he could put away. Instead, he found himself scrambling and stretching, and he could only barely flip the ball over the net. Djokovic took a few steps in and easily thumped the ball into the open court for a winner.
Now, there’s nothing singular about that point in Novak’s career. He has had hundreds of them over the years, maybe even thousands. He didn’t pump his fist afterward or even act like he had done anything special.
But when it ended, Nick Kyrgios immediately looked up at his box, and his shoulders slumped, and I would not pretend to know what was clanging around up there in Kyrgios’ mind, but I know what I would have been thinking: “That’s the best I have. I can’t beat him. Not here. Not now.”
This is what Djokovic does. This is his gift. This is what makes him different from all the rest, even his fellow demigods, Federer and Nadal. Djoker transforms himself into his opponent’s tennis nightmare. While strategies shift and gameplans change, Federer is always Federer. Nadal is always Nadal. For that matter, Serena was always Serena, Pete was always Pete, Mac was always Mac.
But Djokovic … he is whoever he needs to be. If he needs to be a brick wall, he becomes a brick wall. If he needs to shorten the points, he will hit dropshots and charge the net and play cat and mouse. If he needs to win with his serve, he blasts his serve. I’ve always thought this was a small part of the reason some have had trouble relating to him. He isn’t the same player twice.
Nick Kyrgios wins with his historically great serve, his erratic brilliance and by creating enough turbulence that his opponent can’t see straight. In that one point, Djokovic absorbed Nick Kyrgios's best shots — his most intense fury — and, without emotion, repelled them (making it look easy along the way).
I simply cannot imagine anything that would infuriate or dishearten Nick Kyrgios more.
On the next point, Kyrgios went for a wild forehand and missed by five feet. On the point after that, he went for an even wilder forehand and missed by 10 feet.
I think after that point, deep in his heart, Kyrgios began to doubt.
Three games later, with the score 4-4, those doubts came to life. Kyrgios won the first three points, and at 40-0, he missed a more-than-makeable high volley. On the next point, he charged a short ball and had what seemed an easy putaway, but Djokovic guessed right and smacked a forehand that Kyrgios could not handle. Now, suddenly, it was 40-30, and he looked up at his box and saw everybody on their feet cheering him on, and something inside him snapped.
“Oh, now you’re up?!” he shouted at them.
Djokovic returned the next serve and then put Kyrgios away with a beautiful looping forehand down the line to bring the score to deuce. The ball was still in the air when Kyrgios turned to scream at the people in his player’s box.
“It was 40-0!” he shouted at them. “Where were you?”
When he badly missed his first serve, he looked back at the box and shook his head angrily. Everybody knew what would happen next. The double fault was coming. And the double fault came.
Kyrgios waved dismissively to his box as if to say, “See? That’s what you get. That’s what you deserve. A double fault.” It was all so confusing and incomprehensible … only it wasn’t. Kyrgios was melting down. He again missed his first serve and again gestured to his box. In his mind, this had become their fault. They had let him down. They had taken the game for granted. And now he was going to lose the game.
And he did lose the game, when he hit a routine backhand into the net. He lost the game, the set and his mind, all at the same time.
“Forty-love and you’re just relaxed!” Kyrgios yelled at his coaches and friends after he sat down. “Every time! Every time! Forty-fifteen, forty-love, why do you stop? Why? Why do you? Say something!”
Kyrgios stayed with Djokovic throughout the fourth set, but never threatened to actually win it. He won only five points on Djokovic’s serve — two of them on double-faults and two of them on Djokovic unforced errors. But he served brilliantly, forcing a tiebreaker.
Djokovic won six of the first seven points of that tiebreaker, and won the match.
“He’s tough to beat, isn’t he?” Kyrgios was asked during the awards ceremony.
“Yeah, he’s a bit of a god, I’m not going to lie,” Kyrgios said. “I thought I played well.”
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Some numbers. This was Djokovic’s seventh Wimbledon championship, tying him with Pete Sampras for second-most (Federer has eight). There’s something poignant about that — Djokovic has always said he was four when he saw Pete Sampras on television playing at Wimbledon. He asked his parents to buy him a tennis racket.
It was Djokovic’s 21st major championship, one behind Nadal and one ahead of Fed.
It was, as mentioned his 32nd grand slam final, a record.
Djokovic also became the first player to win at least 80 matches at each of the four major championships. This is a bit obscure, but worth mentioning because it takes seven victories to win a grand slam tournament. You can do the math — he has won enough matches at each slam to win it ELEVEN times.
We keep the numbers because, otherwise, we could never keep up with the mind-numbing achievement of Novak Djokovic’s career. Even with the numbers, it’s hard to keep up. Nobody — probably not even Djokovic himself — will remember that one point when it was 3-2 in the third set of the 2022 Wimbledon Final. It is just a drop in the well of brilliant moments.