WIMBLEDON, England — In the last year, Novak Djokovic has experienced the highest of tennis highs, coming within one match of winning a rare calendar-year Grand Slam and the lowest of lows, including detention and deportation after he arrived in Melbourne in January to try to defend his Australian Open title.
On Sunday, he will get a chance to win a seventh Wimbledon singles title against an opponent, Nick Kyrgios of Australia, that few, including Kyrgios himself, thought would ever find the mental strength required to arrive at the biggest stage in the sport.
Djokovic earned his spot in the final with a four-set win over Cameron Norrie of Britain on Friday afternoon, overcoming some early-match inconsistency that is becoming a bit of a habit. He withstood both a strong start from Norrie and a raucous hometown crowd on Center Court to win the semifinal, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
It was the only men’s semifinal played Friday.
On Thursday, Rafael Nadal withdrew from the tournament with a tear in his abdominal muscle. Nadal’s decision not to play after he aggravated the tear in his five-set, quarterfinal victory over Taylor Fritz, allowed Kyrgios to advance without effort into his first Grand Slam singles final. It also ended the hope for a coveted showdown between Djokovic and Nadal, who have won a combined 42 Grand Slam titles but have played each other for the trophy at Wimbledon only eleven, in 2011. Djokovic won.
What the matchup with Kyrgios in the final might lack in terms of historical value — no one, not even Kyrgios, expects him to evolve, at 27, into an all-time great — it may well make up for with drama. It is a duel between two players that many in and around the sport view as villains.
Djokovic’s impetuous and contrarian behavior, especially compared with his chief rivals, the gentlemanly Nadal and Roger Federer, has long made him more feared than loved, a crasher of the binary tennis rivalry that Federer and Nadal first created more than 15 years ago.
Kyrgios, a temperamental and explosive talent who has spent his career battling the tennis establishment and his own demons, is an uncontrollable and disruptive force who has put himself in the heat of the Wimbledon spotlight since the first days of this tournament.
He can explode at any moment, and he has repeatedly in the past two weeks, at chair umpires, opponents, fans or anyone he views as treating him unjustly. Sometimes it is genuine, other times it is merely to shake up and distract his opponent. He has earned $14,000 in fines this tournament but has played to packed stadiums, with fans lusting for his booming serve from him, or the occasional underhanded one, and his through-the-legs trick shots from him.
On Tuesday, news broke that Kyrgios was due in court on Aug. 2 to face allegations of assaulting a former girlfriend. Chiara Passari told police Kyrgios grabbed her during a domestic dispute in December. On the advice of his lawyers from him, Kyrgios has declined to comment on the allegations.
“There’s going to be a lot of fireworks emotionally,” said Djokovic, a favorite in the match even though he has never beaten or even won a set against Kyrgios.
Djokovic and Kyrgios have not played since 2017, and they have never played in a Grand Slam event. But the two sparred verbally at the Australian Open in 2021, a tournament that took place during the height of the pandemic.
Djokovic criticized tournament organizers for the restrictions they placed on players arriving in Australia for the tournament. Most players were under a limited two-week quarantine, but many ended up confined to their rooms for 14 days after a handful of people on their special flights into the country tested positive for Covid-19.
Kyrgios had remained in Australia for most of the first year of the pandemic, dedicating time to delivering food and other supplies to people who struggled to get them during the country’s strict lockdowns. Djokovic, who has refused to get vaccinated, has been skeptical of the public health community’s management of the pandemic.
Long before officials began to give the green light to public gatherings, he staged a tennis exhibition that turned into a superspreader event. Then, shortly after arriving in Australia, I have criticized the rules.
“Djokovic is a tool,” Kyrgios wrote on Twitter.
Djokovic then said in a news conference that he respected Kyrgios’s tennis talents but had no respect for him off the court.
Kyrgios hit back, saying he could not take Djokovic’s criticism seriously, given Djokovic’s behavior.
“He’s a very strange cat, Novak is,” he said. “A heck of a tennis player but unfortunately someone who’s partying with his shirt off during a global pandemic, I don’t know if I can take any slack from that man.”
They have since reached a détente of sorts. It began earlier this year, when Kyrgios spoke up on Djokovic’s behalf after Djokovic was detained in Australia during the controversy over his vaccination status, which ultimately led to his deportation of him.
Kyrgios even described it Friday as a kind of “bromance.” Djokovic would not go that far.
“I think everyone knows there was no love lost for a while there,” Kyrgios said. “I think it was healthy for the sport. I think every time we played each other, there was hype around it.”
Djokovic said relations were far better than they had been.
“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,” he said. “That’s something I truly appreciate.”
Djokovic remains unvaccinated, and unless the United States and Australia change their rules, Sunday’s final may be his last Grand Slam match for nearly 11 months, and he does not expect it to be easy.
“He plays lights-out every time he steps out onto the court,” Djokovic said of Kyrgios. “Just a lot of power in his serve from him and his game from him. So I’m sure he’s going to go for it.”
Djokovic struggled to go for it initially Friday on a sun-splashed, 80-degree day that meteorologists in London were calling a heat wave. Norrie, a steady, never-say-die lefty, was the better player early and into the first games of the second set, going toe-to-toe and trying to out-rally the best rally in the world.
Djokovic struggled with his serve and to find his trademark precision on his groundstrokes. He also doesn’t much care for playing in the heat. Midway through the first set, with Norrie pushing ahead, Djokovic settled into his chair and draped a towel over his head as the packed Center Court crowd roared for a countryman with a home just up the road.
Norrie, who lives so close to the All England Club that he cycled to the grounds earlier in the tournament, smacked an ace to win the set, pumped his fist and basked in the sound. In addition to the crowd inside the stadium, there were thousands more picnicking and downing beers and Pimm’s on Henman Hill as they watched the match on a big screen.
But Djokovic is so good at taking an opponent’s best — and the chiding of a crowd — and biding his time for an opening to appear. He did so when he dropped a set in the fourth round to the hot, Dutch unknown, Tim van Rijthoven, and in the quarterfinals when he dropped the first two sets to Jannik Sinner of Italy, one of the world’s great young players.
Djokovic put a baseball cap on to protect himself from the heat of the sun, and midway through the set he stopped giving free points to Norrie. Suddenly, Norrie found himself fighting off break points every time he served. In the eighth game of the set, Norrie sent a forehand long to give Djokovic a 5-3 lead. Djokovic turned to his box and clinched his fist, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I got this.”
There was never any doubt. Djokovic sprinted through the third set as Norrie’s game slipped, and he grabbed an early service break in the fourth. Norrie battled to keep it close, but ultimately that was all he could do. A small victory but not the one he wanted.
On the final point, Djokovic, who has played 68 Grand Slam tournaments and made the finals 32 times, crushed a serve down the middle, then turned to bait a fan who had yelled to try to disrupt his last stroke. He later claimed with a smile that he was blowing kisses to one that had supported him.
Now he faces Kyrgios, a player he said he and others had long seen as among the most dangerous in the world if he could ever get control of his emotions and be committed to the sport, which he has, at least for now.
“For the quality player that he is,” Djokovic said of Kyrgios, “this is where he needs to be, and he deserves to be.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism