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In Djokovic vs. Kyrgios, tennis’s problem solver meets its problem child

Serbia's Novak Djokovic blows a kiss to somebody in the crowd as he plays against Britain's Cameron Norrie during their semifinal match. (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

WIMBLEDON, England — Robbed of alluring thunder forecast for Friday, Wimbledon carried on anyway and found itself voyaging toward alluring thunder forecast for Sunday. It lost its would-be men’s semifinal between Nick Kyrgios and Rafael Nadal when Nadal had to withdraw Thursday night, but it gained a men’s final between Kyrgios and Novak Djokovic when Djokovic dug into his heap of talents and pulled out one of the utmost.

It will be Djokovic, supernatural problem solver, vs. Kyrgios, super-loud creator of problems. You can see the emotional outbursts from here.

Final arrangements came when Djokovic, in the lone semifinal of Friday, figured out himself and Cameron Norrie as he figures out over and over himself and whoever’s over there. Just as he trailed in the quarterfinals to Jannik Sinner here, in the final to Matteo Berrettini last year, in the 2021 French final with Stefanos Tsitsipas and on and on, he told his nerves to cut it out and produced his usual array of stunning shots and won, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, against a player ranked 12th on Earth.

Rafael Nadal withdraws from Wimbledon with an abdominal injury

Out of his 68 Grand Slam tournaments, he has wrung 32 appearances in finals.

“I mean, every match, every Grand Slam that I get to play at this stage of my career,” the 35-year-old said, “there is a lot on the line.”

This time, the line will waggle.

A first Grand Slam final for the 27-year-old Kyrgios, long the background derecho of the sport, will present Djokovic with, first off, Kyrgios’s traumatizing serve on grass.

“On grass, I would assume it’s even tougher to read his serve,” Djokovic said, “and to return because he has so many free points.” It “puts additional pressure on your serve.” And: “He’s got great hands.” It will present one of the goofier little stats in sports: Kyrgios’s 2-0 record against Djokovic, with both matches occurring in a span of two weeks: March 2, 2017, in Acapulco, Mexico, and March 15, 2017, in Indian Wells, Calif.

Djokovic won none of the four sets. He found the serve untraceable in the thin desert air of eastern California. He saw some aces go by — 25 the first time, 14 the second — and then he never saw Kyrgios again in any practice or match thereafter.

“I guess it’s going to be a game of small margins,” Djokovic said. “I hope I can be at the desired level, then really it’s a mental game in the end, who stays tougher and calmer in the decisive moments.”

As he tries to solve enough to hoard a 21st Grand Slam title, his opponent will arrive to a juncture he figured he would never arrive to even with the talent everyone spotted from his teen days, talent often paired with the word “dangerous.” Kyrgios will arrive as a player known to play better against the better players. He will arrive after plotting on how to play Nadal — they were 1-1 here — as, he said Friday, “I really did want to see how that third chapter was going to go,” and, “I’m sure at the end of the day, everyone did want to see us go to war out there.” That’s everyone except, presumably, the tennis balls.

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He arrives after spending the fortnight more in his rental house and less in pubs or on his phone than in previous years, all of which he sees as relevant.

“I felt like earlier in my career, I didn’t realize that these days off and the practice is so crucial,” he said. Or, as Djokovic put it, “Honestly, as a tennis fan, I’m glad that he’s in the finals because he’s got so much talent.”

He arrives having gained some type of wisdom from the 2022 Australian Open men’s doubles, which he won with fellow Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis over fellow Australians Matthew Ebden and Max Purcell. He arrives in his 30th Grand Slam tournament with some upgraded understanding of the tempo of Grand Slam tournaments, long after he, ranked 40th, got into a first-round scrap here with Briton Paul Jubb, ranked 219th, in which Kyrgios squeaked it out by 7-5 in the fifth set and also spat in the direction of a trolling witness.

“You could be four points away from losing [in the first round],” Kyrgios said, “then 11 days later you’re in the final, so …”

“Ride the waves,” said a man accustomed to creating them and to having them throw him.

And then he arrives after a “shocking sleep” Thursday night — meaning a bad one — and “so much anxiety” and “already feeling so nervous,” even as he can go all the way back to childhood in Canberra and marvel. “Yeah, I think it’s just hilarious,” he said, “because, like, I don’t think I’m supposed to be someone like me. Like, I look at [a photo he posted online of himself as a child], I grew up in Canberra, the courts I trained on were horrible, and now I’m in the chance to play the Wimbledon final.”

Now he finds somebody who solves commotion as well as anyone ever solved commotion.

“For me,” Djokovic said, “arguably it’s on a different level because I have to deal with different things that are also off the court, the crowd being maybe on the side of my opponents most of the times. This is something that throughout my career I’ve been used to. The more you experience these kind of situations, not the better you feel, but just more prepared you feel. You know what to expect.

“It’s always really about handling your own nerves better than maybe your opponent is his own. The internal battle is always the greatest. In the practice sessions where you don’t have the crowds or expectations, you play great. Then you come to the match and you realize it’s amazing how the whole game can fall apart” — as in the first set on Friday — “really just because you feel you’re tense, then no shots are really working properly. Your feet are static and slow.

“Something happens in a match, then all of a sudden it’s completely different and you’re flying. Everything flows. All the time there are these, let’s say, challenges that you’re facing internally but also externally. It’s really a constant battle. All these obstacles that you have to face. Really, I think it’s an amazing exercise to stay in the moment because being present is, I feel like, something that is the best state that an athlete is looking for because then you’re able to, I guess, exclude or switch off certain things and distractions and really focus only on the next point. That’s the zone that everybody talks about, that is really difficult to reach but very easy to lose.”

Yet he does so often dwell there.