November 24, 2022

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Over the course of the past fortnight Nick Kyrgios has been called a number of less than savoury things.

The word “bully” immediately comes to mind, while Australian great Pat Cash, whose own on-court behaviour had more than a few low points, accused him of “gamesmanship” and “cheating”.

He was then accused of toxic masculinity by one tennis commentator for having the temerity to respond to Stefanos Tsitsipas’s bullying claims by calling the Greek star “soft”.

Tsitsipas actually lit the wick for their third-round match by saying, “I respect him for his game and the way he fights … when he wants to” — his own shot at Kyrgios’s mental frailties — and followed it up in their game by repeatedly trying to hit the Australian.

And while all of that was going on, news broke that Kyrgios has a court appearance scheduled for August stemming from an assault allegation.

But amid all of that and the hurt Kyrgios says criticism of him has caused, he has been playing the tournament of his life.

His polarising persona is always a talking point, but ahead of his Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic this is not a story about Kyrgios being a court jester or a bad boy, it’s one about how he wields that Yonex wand like, as Emma Raducanu suggested, a wizard.

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Wimbledon’s king of clutch 

At this Wimbledon, more than at any other grand slam tournament in his career, Kyrgios has been just that.

Despite making the final via a walkover over Rafael Nadal, something Kyrgios said he did not want, the reality is his tennis in the bigger matches this tournament and in the big moments has been almost peerless.

Sure, Kyrgios struggled in his round-one match against local hope Paul Jubb as he did battle with the crowd and a linesperson he called a “snitch”.

And things were looking similarly ordinary early in round four when he was busy clutching his shoulder against rapidly improving American Brandon Nakashima, but he pulled through that match too.

Typically they are the matches where Kyrgios can struggle against consistent grinders he knows he should beat.

But in the bigger matches against the biggest names he turns it on.

That has again rung true this tournament. And while some might say a win over Chile’s Cristian Garin isn’t that big, Garin has been ranked as high as 17, was a junior French Open champion and has a large number of career wins over top-10 players.

When he took on Kyrgios he was fresh off a win over Alex De Minaur, but Kyrgios took him seriously and played tennis that for the first two sets was impossible for Garin to compete with.

As for the Tsitsipas match, Kyrgios did what he does best: He disrupted and dominated against a player whose measure he has had throughout his career.

Big match, big player, Kyrgios wins again.

Sensing a pattern? If so, it’s why two of the greatest players of all time — Novak Djokovic and Nadal — have struggled against him.

Djokovic knows the danger he faces tonight too.

“That’s why we all respect him, because we know what he can come up with.”

Nick Kyrgios holds a racket and gestures
Nick Kyrgios enjoys the NBA so perhaps him making big plays when needed should not be a surprise.(Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images.)

That respect has been earned, but what has been more impressive this Wimbledon is Kyrgios’s play in the big moments.

With his back against the wall at the hands of the media and opponents alike, he has steeled himself, rising to a new level and playing big points better than almost anyone all tournament.

It’s why he is here.

The cold hard facts are these: Kyrgios has blasted 120 aces throughout the tournament and hit 292 winners while making just 167 unforced errors.

But the most telling statistic is this one. The 27-year-old Canberran has saved 82.4 per cent of break points he has faced, while converting his own break points at a rate of over 40 per cent.

Compare those to Djokovic. After five matches, not including his semifinal, the Serbian star had 37 aces, 166 winners, 114 unforced errors, a break save rate of 66.7 per cent and a conversion rate of 40.3 per cent.

That is elite pressure play and it’s something that hasn’t been missed by doubles great Todd Woodbridge, who has routinely spoken on Channel Nine commentary about how Kyrgios is taking more time when facing these big moments.

It’s working for Kyrgios. And in terms of other key areas, both players are in the top 10 in the tournament for return points won, such has been their standard.

Fighting history

So can Kyrgios translate this into an unlikely Wimbledon win against a champion of the sport and future hall of famer?

Novak Djokovic holds a trophy
Novak Djokovic has an imposing record at Wimbledon and does not want to blow another shot at a grand slam title.(Reuters)

Their own personal history says yes, Wimbledon history says no.

Kyrgios leads the head-to-head between the pair 2-0, which is something Djokovic says he is keen to overturn in the Wimbledon final. But not only has Djokovic never taken a set off Kyrgios, in their two 2017 encounters, he has failed to break the Kyrgios serve.

That’s not an ideal sign for one of the greatest returners the sport has ever seen, especially at the aforementioned rate Kyrgios is saving break points.

Also working against Djokovic is the fact that despite having won 20 grand slam singles titles, he has been especially vulnerable in big matches throughout the back end of 2021 and in 2022.

Nadal accounted for him in four sets in their French Open quarterfinal, but when history beckoned Djokovic in late 2021 he faltered badly.

Chasing the Golden Slam (all four majors and the Olympic title in a calendar year) Djokovic went out of the Olympics in a racquet-smashing fit to eventual gold medallist Alexander Zverev before having a teary meltdown in the US Open final against Daniil Medvedev when looking to be the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the grand slam.

His pursuit of tennis history has weighed on him more than once, and now Nadal — champion in Melbourne and Paris — has two more slam titles than he does.

At age 35 things will not get easier for Djokovic, especially when he knows he will not be able to play the US Open due to COVID-19 laws that will not allow unvaccinated foreigners into the country.

“I’m aware of what’s on the line,” he said after his semifinal victory at Wimbledon.

“I don’t know how many opportunities to win the trophy I will still have.”

The aceman cometh, again?

Djokovic is also playing a man in Kyrgios who will swing from the hip and is looking to become the first unseeded player in more than 20 years to lift the men’s singles title at The All England Club.

While Djokovic clearly knows what’s at stake, Kyrgios has been more like an excited kid.

“I never thought I’d be here,” Kyrgios said.

That last-chance-saloon attitude is reminiscent of the previous man to win at SW19 as an unseeded player.

Said man now coaches Djokovic, but in 2001 when he was 29 and in the twilight of his career, Goran Ivanisevic won the title as a wildcard with a ranking of 125.

Goran Ivanisevic celebrates in 2001.
After years of mental torture Goran Ivanisevic finally won Wimbledon late in his career. He wasn’t expected to do so in 2001.(Reuters: Kieran Doherty)

There are more than a couple of similarities between Ivanisevic and Kyrgios, namely booming serves, mercurial games and volatile tempers.

So perhaps it’s a little ironic that in many ways he will be the man Kyrgios will be aiming to emulate most on Sunday.

His ability to give Djokovic some advice on how to combat the big serve could also be invaluable.

Especially as Djokovic hasn’t been at his best at Wimbledon.

He was lucky to get past Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals and looked to struggle early against Cameron Norrie in their semifinal.

He won in four but it wasn’t impressive, and Norrie’s ability to hit off pace balls damaged Djokovic’s timing.

Kyrgios has a similar unorthodox nature to his game off the ground. He doesn’t play with patterns and for Djokovic, who relishes them and a long rally, that represents danger.

But at the same time Djokovic relishes the big moment and has only ever lost one of seven Wimbledon finals, against Andy Murray in 2013.

It’s an ominous record to overcome but if anyone can it’s Kyrgios, who despite outside noise everywhere and plenty of criticism maintains an unshakable belief in his ability.

“I feel like it’s possible to achieve something quite special if you just believe in yourself,” Kyrgios said on Friday.

“I never really lost belief in myself. I feel like most people around me at some stage in my life have lost belief that I would ever make a grand slam final, doubted me a little bit in my behaviour or just the way I trained. 

“I think everyone, it’s safe to say.

On Sunday night that self-belief will be challenged by the icy Djokovic, but if anyone has the resolve to pull off this level of upset, history shows it’s a big-serving gunslinger who plays for the biggest matches.

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