Over almost the past fortnight, the action unfolded at tennis’s most prestigious tourney. Only a mere two years ago, the event was cancelled due to COVID concerns. The shadow of the pandemic still lingered on in last year’s edition, with crowd caps and wholesale restrictions. This year, the multitude was back in full force. Avid patrons included the Royal Family, David Beckham, and even a few actors. In the men’s singles, Novak Djokovic is the defending champ, while the women’s field was wide open with the retirement of Ash Barty. World number one, Iga Swiatek, was the fave before being defeated in the third round. Prior to her loss, she had won thirty seven straight tour matches. A Tunisian and a Kazakh, both maiden finalists, contested the women’s chip. The latter, with the significant height advantage, won in three quick sets.
Calendar Slam foiled
By emerging triumphant at the first two slams, Rafa Nadal had a chance at a historic calendar slam. Only Rod Laver (who did it twice) had swept four of four majors in a regular year. His two trophies has put him in first place with twenty-two majors. He had missed the grass court season after the clay court stretch had drained him. Rafa soldiered on until the quarters, where he was down 2-1 against American Taylor Fritz. Sensing his injury, his family had pleaded for him to retire. The Spaniard did not give in, ultimately winning, but the effort required had finished him.
As has been reported, he pulled out of his semis tussle with Nick Kyrgios, citing his ab injury. In a snap press con, Nadal admitted that he cannot win another two matches. This marks only his second withdrawal at a grand slam. Rafa’s durability is legendary. In the Aussie Open alone, I can recall two instances where he played on despite an obvious malady. A Kyrgios-Nadal matchup would’ve been mouth-watering. The two have a beef against each other and Kyrgios shocked Nadal on centre court as a teenager. This was their first meeting on tour. Nadal has a 6-3 edge against Nick. Yet with his injury and Nick’s momentum, anything was possible. Even Nick was looking forward to their matchup.
Kyrgios, twenty-seven, has played a dream tournament. On the plus side, he has progressed farther than ever. With a bit of luck, he even had a walkover in the semis. When he battled the Chilean, Cristian Garin, this was only his third quarterfinal despite competing since 2012. In the fourth round, he split the first two sets before upping his ace count in the third canto. His opponent, Brandon Nakashima, broke him early in the fourth set and Nick looked lackadaisical for the rest of the frame. He admitted to employing some ‘rope-a-dope’. In the fifth segment, he left no doubt and handily broke through.
Without question, the highlight of his campaign was his third round clash with Stefanos Tsitsipas. He emerged victorious in four sets but not without some controversy. As usual, he bickered with the chair umpire. At one point, Tsitsipas appeared to slam a ball into the crowd. At another, he had tried to hit Nick with a forehand. Thankfully, ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this (attraction)’. When Kyrgios was almost struck, he berated the umpire. It must be remembered that when Djokovic hit a linesman in 2020, he was disqualified. After the match, Tsitsipas called Kyrgios ‘a bully’. The latter responded by labelling the former as ‘soft’. He pointed out that he was more popular than Stefanos among his colleagues.
When the incident was replayed on Kyrgios’s countrymen, one Asian commentator said, ‘I love it’. Both Nick and his opponent were fined for their outbursts. This year, the former has racked up over $20,000 in fines at Wimbledon. Kyrgios has likewise been singled out for violating the Wimbledon dress code. Players are expected to wear all-white outfits. Kyrgios rocked up with a red cap and Jordan sneakers. This hasn’t been Kyrgios first brush with controversy. A quick online search would reveal his list of transgressions.
Simply put, he’s this generation’s John McEnroe, without the slams (so far). He speaks his mind, he’s a flamboyant, fearless bunny. He hits the biggest serves and wins the big points. He had two slam quarters in his belt as a teenager. He serves underhanded and does tweeners. He laps up the crowd and berates his own team. He travels the world but readily admits that tennis is not his first love. He gets set, and loses, in a hurry. His propensity to lash out at others is only surpassed by his tendency to lambast himself during matches. In this regard, he’s reminiscent of former champ, Marat Safin.
When he’s good you can’t get enough of his game. When he isn’t good, you can’t wait to switch channels. He makes you cheer and hold your hair, sometimes simultaneously. He doesn’t just feast on weaklings. As I’ll point out, he saves his best for the world-beaters. He’s only one of two pros to have won their first meetings against the Big 3. Incidentally, McEnroe is doing some commentary work in London, as is the usual. He has been seen fighting with koalas as he tries to squeeze eucalyptus out of the twilight zone. He also would not let up on the Djokovic incident down under. As he fights for his politics, some would even label this as ‘bullying’. Just don’t say that to his face.
Aside from his on-court tantrums, Kyrgios has to contend with off court drama as well. Before his quarters clash, news surfaced that he grabbed his ex. When reporters confronted him, he compared the situation with The Last Dance. He’s a big fan of Jordan’s Bulls, even donning a Rodman tee to a press con. Nick was even seen grinning. Wimbledon was also fined a million after preventing Russians from participating in the tournament. Novak didn’t seemed very surprised to be facing Kyrgios for all the marbles. Nole asserted that Kyrgios plays his best tennis against the best, much like Sakuragi in Slam Dunk.
By now, many tennis fans are familiar with Nick’s story. The son of a Malaysian mother and a Greek father, he took to the game as a kid in Canberra. He fell in love with basketball and his towering stature seemed tailor-made for the sport. He grew up idolising Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics. As mentioned, he turned pro in 2012 and two years later, stunned the tennis world by vanquishing Nadal on centre court. He has enjoyed most of his success at The Club, having reached the second week a number of times. He has endorsed Nike, Malaysian Airlines, among others. He speaks his mind to a fault.
Say what you want against Nick. Fact: he’s the first Aussie to contest a major chip since Little Lleyton in 2005. No Aussie man has emerged victorious at the Club since Hewitt two decades ago. At one point, fellow pro, Alexander Zverev, said that Kyrgios could not meet his lofty expectations as being great in one set does not beget victory. Tennis excellence is measured in sustained success, not just one set or a string of tour matches. He saw Alex ‘The Demon’ De Minaur as the Aussie male most likely to win a slam. I recall watching him at the US Open many years ago. He bageled Tommy Robredo in the first set and was up 3-love in the second. It looked as though he would finish the match in record time. However, the Spanish veteran regrouped and Kyrgios capitulated. In the end, despite the impressive start, he looked vulnerable.
Aussies at the Club
This year has been a strong Aussie showing at the All England club. There were four players who made the second week, including three men. Apart from Kyrgios, De Minaur also had a strong showing. He led two sets to love against Garin, but ended up packing. Had he succeeded, it would’ve been an All-Aussie men’s quarters. Kyrgios had no such troubles, dispatching of the clay court specialist in straight sets. Meanwhile, Roger was a no-show. Indeed, he hasn’t suited up since last year’s edition, when Father Time seemed to have humbled him. He looked dapper though during the centenary celebration of centre court.Meanwhile, Ajla Tomljanovic (Nick’s other ex) carried the torch for the women’s side. She ultimately lost in three sets in the fourth round.
A match of contrasts
Kyrgios, as a world number forty, is the lowest seed to make the men’s final since 2003. Most importantly, he has won both his prior matches against the Djoker, not even dropping a set. However, the stakes for this one are much higher. History is on the line and Nole knows what it takes to lift that trophy. After all, he’s the three-time defending champion. He was barely troubled as he took out the hometown hero (and world number nine) in the semis. He hasn’t lost at the Club since 2017.
He has his eyes on the prize. Rather unusually, Nole has not won a slam this year. He is stuck at twenty majors, tied with Fed for second all-time. As pundits have posited, every final is crucial in his quest to catch up with Rafa. Novak has been the game’s best returner for a decade and has spent the most weeks at world number one. His stretching ability on the court has enabled him to defend far better than any player in history. In spite of his visa concerns, he has dominated the Aussie Open almost as much as Nadal has lorded over Paris. This is a battle of contrasts: power against finesse, youth versus experience, flashy against a steady hand. Regardless, with Federer out and Nadal ogling his ab, this is probably Kyrgios’s best chance to take home the bacon.
When play wraps up this year, will it be the champion or the challenger who hoists the The Cup?