Novak Djokovic holds a straight face, and then betrays a small smile. He looks a bit embarrassed, as television presenter Rishi Persad reveals another statistic from the Serb’s career.
The duo, after all these years at Wimbledon, share friendly banter in their post-match on court interviews. Last year, when Djokovic reached the final, Persad recited a few stats and Djokovic joked: “you should travel with me.”
On Friday, as the top seed dispatched the challenge from home-hope Cameron Norrie in front of a partisan Centre Court crowd to reach an eight Wimbledon final, Persad announced that Djokovic had reached an Open Era men’s record 32nd Grand Slam final in 68 Major appearances.
This time though, Djokovic was in no mood for games. This is the first Major final he’s reached this year, and by the looks of it, may be the only one this year. The United States government policy dictates that unvaccinated foreigners – like Djokovic – will not be allowed to enter the country, meaning the 20-time Grand Slam champion cannot compete at the US Open as things stand.
Wimbledon is set to be the only chance he has of overtaking Roger Federer’s Grand Slam tally this year, and put him just one short of all-time men’s record holder Rafael Nadal.
“The job is not done,” he offered in reply to Persad.
Djokovic is one win away from becoming the fourth male player in the Open Era to win four consecutive Wimbledon titles – after Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
For the three-time defending champion to get on that list though, he needs to get the better of a player he’s never beaten before in two meetings. A certain Nicholas Hilmy Kyrgios.
“One thing for sure, there is going to be a lot of fireworks emotionally from both of us,” Djokovic said after his semifinal win.
“It is going to be his first Grand Slam final. He is very excited and he doesn’t have much to lose and he is always playing like that. He is playing so freely, one of the biggest serves in the game. Just a big game overall, a lot of power in his shots. We haven’t played for some time. I have never won a set off him. Hopefully it can be different this time.”
The 27-year-old Australian had previously never gotten past the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam, but had reached the last eight twice – on his Wimbledon debut in 2014 (when, as the world No 144, he beat then No 1 Rafael Nadal in the fourth round) and at the 2015 Australian Open.
This time though, the world No 40 has been just as determined as Djokovic enroute his first Grand Slam final. During the Wimbledon tune-up event in Halle, he claimed he was among the ‘top five, top 10’ players in the world on grass.
It’s definitely the surface he’s most comfortable on. And now he has a shot at winning perhaps the biggest prize there is in tennis.
Flamboyant Kyrgios against textbook Djokovic
On court, regardless of the surface, Kyrgios’ game-style is very easy on the eye. That big serve is a much-envied weapon on the tour, with Djokovic speaking about it elaborately in press conference.
He’s no less devastating with his ground strokes. He’ll hit topspin, off both wings, and once in a while hop and send back a blistering, flat winner across the net. He’ll throw in drop shots when least expected, he’ll draw chuckles from the crowd with an underarm serve (which he often tries during warm-up). He’ll play a few tweeners needlessly – getting most of them right.
And then there’s the constant chatter. The tantrums. The arguments with umpires, with fans. He’ll complain about the sun, the wind, not being given clean white towels. He even told a ball kid in Halle to ‘run properly.’
It’s a long list of complaints that often overshadows his talent. But he hasn’t let it get the better of him this Wimbledon. He’s kept a cool head when needed to the most, to convert the important points, even if it distracted an opponent. Just ask Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“It wouldn’t be easy (playing me), especially with the unpredictable factor of what mood I’m going to be in, how I’m going to play,” he said in an interview with the ATP in Halle.
“I’m not taking it too seriously. Most of the tour, every single day, every thing (other players) do is for tennis. For me I just want to go out there, have fun, entertain, and sometimes it may not be easy for other people to concentrate.
“I’ve never changed, since I was 10-years-old to now, I’ve always been quite loud and emotional on the court. I’ve always wanted to make it theatrical, like a theatre, like a show.”
On Sunday, on Centre Court, it’s uncertain if the theatrics will affect Djokovic – one of the mental giants of the sport.
Through most of his life, he’s been the third wheel to the romanticism of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. He’s often on the wrong side of the crowd – just as it was against Norrie understandably – and yet he keeps his mind stable enough to get through the points that matter.
The 35-year-old is a defender extraordinaire. He will run, stretch till he’s executed a perfect split, and get the ball back in play. He’s a perennial chaser of lost causes who will somehow still find the winner from the most improbable positions.
Compared to Kyrgios, Djokovic’s game is simple, efficient, textbook. But no less effective.
Thaw in relationship
The Kyrgios-Nadal semifinal was expected to be the match to watch before the final. There is no love lost between the two. Nadal has felt disrespected by the Australian in the past, Kyrgios called the Spaniard ‘super salty.’
The last time they met at Wimbledon, in 2019, Kyrgios even aimed a powerful forehand directly at Nadal, who was at the net.
But this time the 22-time Grand Slam champion pulled out of the tournament after his quarterfinal with an abdominal injury, giving Kyrgios a direct entry into the final, against a player he has dissed in the past as well.
The Canberran constantly criticised Djokovic during the Serbian’s ill-fated Adria Tour in 2020, calling him “a strange cat” once. Djokovic had said he didn’t have much respect for the Australian off court and that didn’t sit well with Kyrgios, as he cited the charity work he did during the pandemic and pointed out Djokovic’s mishaps.
But he stood up for Djokovic when he was going through the visa saga in Australia in January. That animosity, Kyrgios explained, has now turned into a ‘bromance.’ They often message each other on Instagram, Kyrgios revealing that one of the recent interactions involved Djokovic messaging him, saying: “Hopefully I’ll see you Sunday.”
“We definitely have a bit of a bromance now, which is weird. I think everyone knows there was no love lost for a while there,” Kyrgios said in a press conference.
“I felt like I was almost the only player to stand up for him with all that kind of drama at the Australian Open. I feel like that’s where respect is kind of earned. Not on a tennis court, but when a real-life crisis is happening and someone stands up for you.”
Djokovic too acknowledged the gesture and thaw in their relationship.
“When it was really tough for me in Australia, he was one of the very few players that came out publicly and supported me and stood by me. That’s something I truly appreciate. So, I respect him for that a lot.
“But he’s a big-match player. The best tennis he’s played is always against the top guys. That’s why we all respect him, because we know what he can come up with. I’m glad that he’s in the final because he’s got so much talent.”
Kyrgios claims he hasn’t had much sleep because of the excitement of getting this far in a Slam. He did partner Thanasi Kokkinakis to the men’s doubles title at the Australian Open this year. But a Wimbledon crown in singles is probably the biggest accolade there is in the sport. Yet true to his style, he’s not taking it too seriously.
“You just have to ride the waves, roll with the punches in a Grand Slam. You really don’t know. You could be four points away from losing the tournament, then 11 days later you’re in the final,” said Kyrgios.
“Whether I win or lose on Sunday, I’m going to be happy. It’s such a great achievement that I thought I’d never be a part of.
“Especially at 27, I feel this is, like, for me, I thought it was the later stages of my career. But I just never thought it would be right here. I have a chance. Once you are able to raise a Grand Slam trophy, I mean, kind of what else is there to achieve? So I never thought I’d be here. I’m just super proud and I’m just ready to go. I’m going to give it my all and we’ll see what happens.”
On Sunday, it’ll be the first time Kyrgios participates in another Wimbledon tradition. He’ll walk through the halls of the All England Club, on cue, and make his way down to Centre Court. Djokovic will be nearby, doing it for the eight time. Between that and the final handshake at the net, there are fireworks, as Djokovic predicted, expected. There will be some big aces and some unexpected winners. Perhaps even a few unsavoury interactions with the crowd.
And we’re all in for one entertaining match. How good? It depends on which Nick Kyrgios shows up.
Road to the final
|Round|| Novak Djokovic|| Nick Kyrgios|
| First|| bt Soon-woo Kwon 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4|| bt Paul Jubb 3-6, 6-1, 7-5, 6-7 (3), 7-5|
| Second|| bt Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-1, 6-4, 6-2|| bt Filip Krajinovic 6-2, 6-3, 6-1|
| Third|| bt Miomir Kecmanovic 6-0, 6-3, 6-4|| bt Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7)|
| Fourth|| bt Tim van Rijthoven 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2|| bt Brandon Nakashima 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-2|
| Quarterfinal|| bt Jannik Sinner 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2|| bt Cristian Garin 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (5)|
|Semifinal|| bt Cameron Norrie 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4|| Walkover against Rafael Nadal|