Talent alone is never enough against Novak Djokovic. The tennis player has a way not simply of absorbing and repelling talent, but reflecting it back at its owner like some horrible fairground mirror, fracturing and multiplying it, turning their greatest strength into their worst nightmare. Powerful serves are returned with interest; find a corner and he will simply find the opposite one. When things are going well for Djokovic he seems almost to disappear from view, like a forcefield or an invisible border, until the only person you are still playing is yourself.
Such was the fate that befell Nick Kyrgios in a gripping but entirely predictable Wimbledon men’s final on 10 July. The Australian world No 40 has no shortage of natural talent, but nor has he ever really required any encouragement to start playing against himself. And so Djokovic, after losing the first set on a sweltering day in south London, simply turned up the heat a little further. By the second he had managed to get a precious read on the Kyrgios serve, taking control of the match.
By the third, the only two players remaining on court were Kyrgios and his id. He raged at his team in the stands, accusing them of not supporting him vigorously enough. He raged at the umpire after a spectator spoke to him during a point. Djokovic simply sipped his electrolyte drink, patted his face with a towel and went through his usual routines, comfortable in the fact that not a single pair of eyes in the stadium was upon him. The disappearing act was complete.
For seasoned Kyrgios watchers, long since accustomed to his explosions and extemporisations, the only novel or surprising aspect about any of this was that it was taking place in a Wimbledon final, his F-bombs landing – as the Telegraph would later put it with an amusing bouquet of outrage – “just metres from Prince George”. Back home the reaction to Kyrgios defeat in four sets was unimpressed, bordering on uncharitable. “Nick Kyrgios melted down under the pressure of his first final,” trilled the West Australian. “Kyrgios loses the war against himself,” crowed the Australian.
But then for all their undoubted ability on the court, neither of these men has been particularly easy to love over the years. Djokovic was Centre Court’s favourite villain long before he flirted dangerously with anti-vax sentiment and came out against equal pay for male and female players. Kyrgios can be an unfettered and frequently thrilling presence on tour, a box-office player with a box-office talent for controversy. He is due in court in Canberra on 2 August, accused of assaulting his girlfriend in December 2021.
Wimbledon was a curiously unsatisfying tournament in this respect: a panoply of undesirable choices, compromised allegiances and a disorienting absence of household names. Roger Federer was absent. Rafael Nadal withdrew with injury after reaching the quarter-finals. Serena Williams lost in the first round; Emma Raducanu and Andy Murray were eliminated in the second; the all-conquering women’s world No 1 Iga Swiatek was beaten in the third round; and the exciting Spanish prodigy Carlos Alcaraz in the fourth.
Meanwhile Wimbledon’s decision to ban all Russian and Belarusian players from the draw to deny the Putin regime a PR coup backfired in unforeseeable circumstances. The women’s crown was claimed by the world No 23, Elena Rybakina, a Moscow-born player who had competed under the Russian flag until 2018 before switching allegiance to Kazakhstan. Within hours the Russian Tennis Federation had claimed Rybakina as one of their own, declaring her “our product”.
Tennis as a whole has this basic sense of flux and oddness to it at the moment: the confusion of never being quite sure what you’re seeing, who to cheer on, what it all means, what it’s all for. Anomalies and absurdities abound. Djokovic’s plummet to No 7 in the world after his victory because the main men’s tour stripped Wimbledon of its ranking points in retaliation for the Russia decision. Daniil Medvedev, a Russian, and Alexander Zverev, German, are the world No 1 and No 2 yet neither played Wimbledon. Djokovic and Nadal remain by common consent the two best players in the world, and yet neither is certain to play at the US Open in August because Nadal is injured and Djokovic is unvaccinated. Nobody is quite sure whether Federer will ever play again. Williams is still routinely referred to as “the greatest player in the world” even though on current evidence she can barely move around the court.
Wimbledon, with its immaculate green walls and innate sense of order, used to be the sort of place we came to escape from such questions: a refuge from invidious choices and the knotted complexities of the world beyond. It offered us simple moral parables accompanied by a calming colour scheme and a soothing Sue Barker commentary, heroes like Tim Henman and Boris Becker that we could all get behind. Now Barker has retired. Henman aligned himself with the Covid sceptics Matt Le Tissier and Laurence Fox last year in signing an open letter calling for protective masks to be banned in schools. And Becker is serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence for hiding assets to avoid paying debts.
Perhaps Djokovic vs Kyrgios was the perfect final for these discomforting times: a moral quandary in the guise of a tennis match, an encounter that promised to settle everything while in reality settling nothing. In the stands a protester held up a banner reading “Where is Peng Shuai?” – a reference to the Chinese player who disappeared from public view last year after alleging that a former government official had sexually assaulted her. Within seconds the protester was accosted by security guards and ejected from the venue.