For Sunday’s Wimbledon Final, ‘Fireworks’ and a Contrast in Style

WIMBLEDON, England — With the Wimbledon title at stake, it will be the maximizer versus the man who seemingly makes it up as he goes along.

Both Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios were identified early as players of surpassing talent and great potential. But while Djokovic, long the No. 1 player in the world, has turned over stones and sifted through the gravel in his restless quest for enduring excellence, Kyrgios has struggled to find the motivation, equanimity and clarity of purpose to challenge for the game’s biggest prizes.

But on Sunday, they will share, however briefly, the same objective as they clash — the verb seems just right — on the grass of the All England Club.

“Well, one thing is for sure, there are going to be a lot of fireworks emotionally from both guys,” Djokovic said on Friday.

This final, the capstone to one of the weirdest of Wimbledons, will be a contrast in styles.

Kyrgios, with his huge and hard-to-read serve, can undoubtedly bring the heat. Djokovic, the premier returner in the game, is an expert at extinguishing such flames.

Kyrgios can make any shot look spectacular, turning routine strokes into between-the-legs performance art. Djokovic has long been underappreciated because he can make an excruciatingly difficult shot look routine and smooth.

But the starker contrast is in their résumés. This will be Djokovic’s 32nd appearance in a Grand Slam singles final, breaking his tie for the men’s record with his longtime rival Roger Federer.

It will be Kyrgios’s first, which he said was a big reason he had a nearly sleepless night on Thursday after Rafael Nadal, his would-be opponent, withdrew from the tournament with an abdominal tear. That allowed Kyrgios to skip the semifinal phase altogether on a journey to uncharted territory for him.

Kyrgios beat Djokovic in their two previous matches.Credit…Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

“I was just restless, so many thoughts in my head about a Wimbledon final; that’s all I was thinking about,” Kyrgios said, estimating that he got just one hour of sleep. “That’s where Djokovic has the advantage from the get-go. He can draw from experience. He’s done it so many more times. He knows the emotions he’s going to be feeling. I don’t know that. I don’t know anything like that.”

Kyrgios does know what it is like to defeat Djokovic, however. They faced off twice in 2017 in back-to-back tournaments on hard courts, and Kyrgios, serve and big game clicking, won both matches without dropping a set: He prevailed, 7-6 (9), 7-5, in the quarterfinals in Acapulco, Mexico, and won, 6-4, 7-6 (3), in the round of 16 in Indian Wells, Calif.

Djokovic was in a slump at that time, falling back because of an elbow injury and personal problems after a long period of dominance. Kyrgios was just 21 and seemingly on an upward trajectory.

But the past five years have been full of surprises, and while Djokovic, 35, recovered his mojo and resumed piling up major titles before his vaccination standoff in Melbourne, Kyrgios continued to bedevil his elders on court, including chair umpires. Yet he has failed to get past even the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam singles draw until now.

He has faced, by his own account, mental health challenges, including self-harm, suicidal thoughts and abuse of alcohol and drugs. But his upside was never in doubt for the champions who had faced him.

“I think, between us players, we always know how dangerous he is, on grass particularly, because of his game, because of his attitude on the court being so confident, just going for it, being a very complete player,” Djokovic said.

Djokovic joked that he would start by trying to win a set, and said that he was well aware that this final, despite the yawning gap in achievement, had the potential to be something spectacular.

“Honestly, as a tennis fan, I’m glad that he’s in the finals, because he’s got so much talent,” Djokovic said. “Everyone was praising him when he came on the tour, expecting great things from him. Of course, then we know what was happening throughout many years with him mentally, emotionally. On and off the court, a lot of different things were distracting him, and he was not being able to get this consistency.”

Djokovic then finished the thought on a welcoming note.

“For the quality player that he is, this is where he needs to be and he deserves to be,” he said.

The Djokovic-Kyrgios relationship was once publicly tense, but it sounded more like a mutual-admiration society on Friday, and Djokovic made it clear that he appreciated that Kyrgios, an Australian, offered him support in January when he was deported from Australia before the Australian Open. He had arrived in Melbourne convinced that he would be given a waiver to enter because he had recently recovered from the coronavirus — even though he hadn’t been vaccinated.

“We definitely have a bit of a bromance now, which is weird,” Kyrgios said. “I think everyone knows there was no love lost for a while there.”

Though Djokovic was not quite prepared to second the bromance, Kyrgios said they had begun exchanging Instagram direct messages. “Earlier in the week, he was like, ‘Hopefully, I’ll see you Sunday,’” Kyrgios said.

So it has turned out, but win or lose, Kyrgios’s ranking will not reflect the breakthrough. Kyrgios arrived at Wimbledon ranked 40th in the world, and his ranking will actually drop next week because of the ATP Tour’s decision to strip Wimbledon of ranking points this year in response to the tournament’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Monday, the points from last year’s Wimbledon will also fall off players’ rankings, dropping Kyrgios to about 45. Djokovic, who has won 27 straight matches at Wimbledon and is on the verge of a fourth straight title here, will also drop back: from No. 3 to No. 7.

It is unprecedented and, frankly, unjust. Though the men’s and women’s tours made their move to mark their territory and try to discourage future bans over political issues, the point stripping has clearly been more of a short-term hit to the players than to Wimbledon, which has been bustling with full crowds after a lighter-than-usual first few days and has continued to generate global buzz. (Kyrgios vs. Djokovic won’t hurt there.)

But it also has been a Wimbledon full of odd twists and big letdowns, with three leading men’s players, including Matteo Berrettini, withdrawing after testing positive for the coronavirus, and with Nadal unable to play his semifinal against Kyrgios and continue his quest for the calendar-year Grand Slam. One of the twists: Elena Rybakina, born and raised in Russia and often still training there, is in the women’s final and now representing Kazakhstan. Even the British government was unable to finish the tournament, with British ministers resigning en masse before Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the hint.

Djokovic did have to play his semifinal, however, and the suspense did not last much more than a set and a half on Friday before he found his flow against Cameron Norrie of Britain and accelerated to the finish with a victory, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

It was, as it so often is with Djokovic involved, two against one: Norrie and a partisan Centre Court crowd versus Djokovic.

It was loud, often thunderously loud, in the early stages as Norrie took the lead, but it is much less clear which way the crowd will blow on Sunday. Kyrgios’s often-confrontational approach and foul-mouthed dialogues (and monologues) run counter to the codes that are typically embraced at the All England Club, whose crowd trends older, particularly on Centre Court.

Kyrgios, who leads the tournament in fines, is also facing legal trouble, having been summoned to appear in court in Australia on Aug. 2 in relation to an assault allegation from his former girlfriend. He has declined to address the allegations at Wimbledon, and on Friday, when his name was mentioned in Djokovic’s on-court interview, there was a brief flurry of cheers followed by a much louder round of boos.

“I believe that the crowd are going to support Novak in the final,” said Mark Petchey, a British coach, television analyst and former player. “It will be interesting to see how that affects Novak, who is so used to being the underdog.”

Sunday’s duel will be interesting indeed and just maybe transcendent. Kyrgios, after three full days of waiting, could either rise to the most significant opportunity of his career or fall flat after too many restless nights of anticipation.

“It’s definitely a shock to the system because I’ve been playing so many matches,” he said of his unexpected break.

But it certainly appears that Kyrgios has a game and a temperament made for the sport’s biggest occasions. We already know that Djokovic does.

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