As the Wimbledon fortnight draws to a close, the striking lack of star power has cast a shadow over the tournament. Early exits for Serena Williams, Emma Raducanu, and Iga Swiatek, and the absence of the injured Naomi Osaka and the retired Ash Barry have not helped the women’s event. The men’s side – usually a big commercial draw thanks to the ‘Big 3’ – has not salvaged it either.
The results are evident: in its first week, Wimbledon’s attendances were down seven percent from 2019, the second-lowest since 2007. TV ratings have been reported to be on the rise after last year, but still nowhere near the pre-pandemic levels. A lack of buzz, media coverage, and general relevance have all been felt.
World No.1 Daniil Medvedev and No.8 Andrey Rublev were out due to the ban on Russian players. Alexander Zverev missed out due to injury. Last year’s finalist and heavy pre-tournament favourite Matteo Berrettini withdrew at the last minute after contracting COVID-19. Home favourite Andy Murray, now in the twilight of his career, fell away early. And all this was capped off by the first absence in 23 years of Roger Federer, who even at 40, remains tennis’ biggest personality.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 8, 2022
So, it was down to Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to salvage the tournament with a hotly anticipated final on the cards. The top 2 seeds, their rivalry has dominated headlines for years, and their quest to write and rewrite history is one of international sports’ most cherished narratives. An injury to Nadal’s abdomen and subsequent withdrawal not only eliminated any chances of that, but also deprived fans of one semifinal.
Now on the final day, it is up to Djokovic and Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, whose grass-friendly and big-hitting playing style was aided massively by the depleted draw, to give the Championships the grand finale it desperately needs. The duo’s lack of history on the court is made up by plenty of fiery back and forth off it, and their respective games could make for a highly entertaining encounter.
The stakes for the final are unquestionably high. Djokovic, who has not been at his best at SW19 and has not needed to be, is playing for more than just a Wimbledon title.
Three-time defending champion and six-time holder of the famous golden trophy, the Serb has lost ground to Nadal in the race for most Grand Slams. Djokovic trails his rival’s all-time men’s record of 22 by two Majors, and he will want to close the ground considering the uncertainty of his future.
The 35-year-old’s anti-vaccination stance has put his participation at the US Open this year in doubt, whose borders are still shut for unvaccinated persons. Although there have been recent relaxations, his participation at next year’s Australian Open – where he suffered high-profile deportation earlier this year – is also up in the air, making Wimbledon all the more important.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 8, 2022
For Kyrgios, an opportunity like this is almost certainly not going to come again. Both Berrettini and 2019 semifinalist Roberto Bautista Agut were in his quarter, but withdrew due to COVID. Even though the Aussie stumbled – needing five sets in the first and fourth round – his tennis has been more consistent than ever before.
Despite all his antics – especially in the controversial third round against Stefanos Tsitsipas – it is often forgotten that he was comfortably the better player in much of the match. And he has been for all his encounters in London so far.
Serve vs Return
Most tennis players, including Djokovic, have acknowledged how dangerous Kyrgios can be on grass, thanks mostly to his massive serve. The Aussie can bomb down record speeds, and on the rare occasions on which they come back into his court, it usually sets up a strong forehand.
Slow starts a concern for Djokovic
Novak Djokovic’s slow starts to best-of-five matches have become a recurring problem. The Serb is well known for his comebacks – his quarterfinal win over Jannik Sinner was his seventh comeback from two sets down – but since the start of 2021, he has now dropped the first set in 14 Grand Slam matches. Remarkably, he has won 12 of those, including the semifinal and quarterfinal at SW19 this week. However, the last time it happened in a final, he lost in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev at the US Open. At the French Open quarterfinal last month, he was too late to respond to Nadal’s aggressive baseline strategy and the Spaniard won in four after racing into a one-set lead in the first half-hour. Given how hard it has been for his opponents to carve out opportunities on Kyrgios’ serve, a slow start could give Djokovic a bit too much to do to win his 21st Major.
If there is any player on tour capable of dealing with Kyrgios’ serve, it has to be Djokovic. The Serb’s return has gained legendary status and it’s not just its depth but its angles that allow him to take complete control of the rallies. Once Djokovic is able to negate Kyrgios’s serve – much easier said than done on grass – his varied arsenal, particularly a strong crosscourt backhand, is far likelier to dominate the baseline exchanges.
Given their previous record, it is difficult to imagine Djokovic being the Aussie’s most difficult opponent. Kyrgios is 2-0 up, but both his wins came in 2017, Djokovic’s career-worst season that was derailed by injury. But the Serb has the game to outplay his opponent, but given Kyrgios’ trademark outbursts, he’ll need his mental fortitude.
For Kyrgios, it’s a chance to prove his run to the final is far from an outlier, that his game can do the talking, and that he can hold his own on the biggest stage of them all.
Either way, the Wimbledon suits – who have already been put in a difficult spot by handing the women’s trophy to Russian-born Elena Rybakina – will be hoping for a flashy finale that tops off a largely monotonous fortnight.