As Novak Djokovic was putting the finishing touches to his seventh Wimbledon title, with a performance of stubbornness and style over Nick Kyrgios, he began to experience an unfamiliar sensation: a spontaneous outbreak of affection.
The 35-year-old has never been a darling of Centre Court. Not in an era of Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. But with Kyrgios on the ropes at match point, the chants that had started with his box – “Nole! Nole!” – grew and multiplied like a virus. He smiled. Nodded. Then ended it with an executioner’s resolve.
Say what you like about Djokovic – and many did after he was deported from Australia due to his controversial anti-vax stance. But on the court his unwillingness to bend or buckle, to repeatedly absorb his opponents’ fire and return it with greater spite, makes him a hell of a tennis player. He will never be loved. But he remains rightfully feared.
After 30 minutes Kyrgios was a set up and dominating. But there is a reason why Djokovic has won 21 grand slam titles. He possesses a supernatural ability to invert momentum, to mine a deeper resolve when the chips are most down, to turn a tennis match into a fight to the death. Cut his arms off and you suspect the Serb would half-swallow his racket, bite down hard and keep swinging.
What made this 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3) victory even more special was that Djokovic wondered whether he would ever return to his best. “The first months of this year affected me,” he said. “Mentally and emotionally I was not in a good place. I felt so much pressure. That caused turbulence inside of me. I just needed time to weather the storm.”
He faced a storm of a different variety against Kyrgios, who rather than drown in nerves in his first grand slam final like most mortals would, immediately treated Centre Court to a set of his greatest hits. Aces flew past the Serb at supercar speeds and at impossible angles. Forehands clattered the back walls. And underarm serves, tweeners between his legs and drop shots as delicate as a feather were delivered with the skill of a master craftsman.
Djokovic is widely lauded as the game’s greatest returner. Yet in that opening set he could only manage five points when facing Kyrgios’s serve. At this point the Australian was combining the fearsome with the tender, the audacious and the sublime. It was a Blitzkrieg soundtracked by Beethoven’s pastoral.
“I played a hell of a first set and put myself in a position to take a stranglehold of the match,” admitted Kyrgios. “But he’s just really composed. It’s weird, I felt like he didn’t do anything amazing. But in big moments, it just felt like he was never rattled. I feel like that’s his greatest strength.”
Crucially in the second set, Djokovic began to read Kyrgios’s 130mph howitzers, absorb their power, and return with them interest. It meant the final was now being played on Djokovic’s terms, with grinding baseline rallies, squeezing his opponent’s lungs and ultimately crushing his spirit.
“From the baseline I didn’t miss much,” Djokovic said afterwards. “It was part of the strategy obviously playing somebody who is so talented and flashy as Nick, who has one of the best, if not the best, serve that we have in the game. It was frustrating at times today, just seeing balls pass by.”
As the momentum shifted, so did Kyrgios’s attitude. At first tennis’s punk rocker was on his best behaviour. But as he began to feel the match slipping he dropped an f-bomb or two in front of Prince George – and criticised his box.
At 5-3 down in the second set, the Australian had three break points only to blow all of them. But rather than recognise his mistakes he blamed his team. “It was love-40, god damn it,” he shouted. “Is it not a big enough moment, you want a bigger moment? Is it big enough for you?”
It felt like Kyrgios was crossing a dangerous line between being needy and coercive, but he soon had another irritant as he complained twice to the umpire about a young woman who was shouting at him. “It’s the one who looks like she’s had 700 drinks, bro,” he said. “She keeps on talking to me in the middle of the point. She’s drunk out of her mind.”
The match was disrupted again shortly afterwards when a protester shouted “Where is Peng Shuai?” and held up a sign with the same message before being bundled out of Centre Court. The activist, Drew Pavlou, later accused Wimbledon’s security team of wrestling him to the floor before throwing him out of the grounds.
In an increasingly febrile atmosphere, Djokovic remained ice-cool. And with this victory he moves to within one Wimbledon title of Federer and one slam behind Nadal. And it’s clear that he retains the hunter’s thrill for the chase. “I am not in a rush to finish my career,” he said smiling. “I want to keep my body healthy to compete with the young guns.”
Much, of course, has changed since Wimbledon was last played in front of full crowds in 2019. Roger Federer has one foot out of the door. Serena Williams too. Rafael Nadal, for his late-career renaissance, is constantly battling injuries. But Djokovic remains tennis’s ultimate iron man, chasing yet more grand slams and the highest seat in the pantheon. And for all the criticism he faces, on and off the court, the rest is just noise.