Back in January, when Novak Djokovic was getting curb-stomped by every koala lover in Australia, one prominent local stood up for him.
“Imagine how he’s feeling. He probably just wants a little support now from other players,” Nick Kyrgios said. “Hey bro, he’s getting it from me.”
Only a few months earlier, the pair had been well-known, long-distance pen enemies. It started way back when Kyrgios broadsided the Serb on a podcast: “He just wants to be liked so much that I can’t stand him.”
The spat picked up during lockdown, when few of us were our best online selves. Kyrgios called Djokovic “a tool” for his anti-vaccine stand. Djokovic said he “didn’t respect” Kyrgios. Kyrgios said he wasn’t taking any lip from “someone partying with his shirt off in a pandemic.”
Then the Australian Open happened and Kyrgios did what Kyrgios does – pulled the rhetorical handbrake and spun out his opinion 180 degrees. Whatever his faults, the Australian player may be the only authentic outsider in sports. He will defend anyone who takes a contrary stand.
That small act of generosity has apparently sparked a genuine, if wary, friendship. A month ago that’s all it was. The pair had only played twice. Neither match was notable, aside from the fact that Kyrgios won them.
Now they will play in what might be the most unlikely Wimbledon men’s final in a generation.
There was still the question of Djokovic qualifying, but the only people who truly believed that was an open question had Centre Court tickets on Friday.
The other semi-finalist, Britain’s Cameron Norrie, put in a decent shift. But just when the homer audience was starting to think about believing, Norrie took an awkward second-set slip and that was it. Djokovic put it in cruise control from there, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
So on to the final everyone has always wanted (since about 8 p.m. on Wednesday).
Only eight players have won this title since Kyrgios, 27, was born. Now, from nearly nothing, he gets a chance to refashion his reputation. He’s already one of the remarkable players of his generation. But after Sunday, part of that might be about the playing.
I guess the question for many neutrals is – who do you like less? Kyrgios can be a boor. Djokovic is so deep into the wellness woo-woo that he ought to start wearing a belt of crystals into matches.
But one cannot doubt the sincerity either man brings to their work. If they could be less sincere, they would be liked. That they aren’t suggests they can’t. There is something oddly heartening about seeing the two oddballs of the sport come together to fight common sense.
“I don’t know if you can call it a bromance yet,” Djokovic said. “But we definitely have a better relationship than what it was.”
This is the stuff screenwriters salivate over – the louche court lizard and Iron Man minus the armour finding a way to come together in fraternal quasi-love.
“I feel like that is where respect is kind of earned,” Kyrgios said. “Not on the tennis court. But when a real-life crisis is happening and someone stands up for you.”
No, no, too early, man. You have to save that good stuff for the third act, which is the weepy speech after you’ve won/lost. Otherwise, great stuff. Keep emoting just like that.
A couple of hours before the day’s only match, they rolled Kyrgios out to talk about the final.
Djokovic, the superior player, is much the inferior gusher.
“For the quality of player that he is, this is where he needs to be, and he deserves to be,” Djokovic said.
He couldn’t quite get his arms around the real selling point of this final – redemption.
But no problem. They rolled Kyrgios out a couple of hours before Djokovic’s semi for just this purpose.
Kyrgios seemed a changed man. Humble. Contemplative. Giving long, thoughtful answers to questions about how he got here and what he’s learned about himself.
Thankfully, that didn’t last long. Someone asked him a question about Australia’s “rich heritage of champions.” That sent Kyrgios off on a rant about all the former Aussie players he believes hate him.
(He’s got a point. After his roll-around-on-the-ground match against Stefanos Tsitsipas here, former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash laced Kyrgios: “He has brought tennis to the lowest level I can see as far as gamesmanship, cheating, manipulation, abuse.”)
“It’s weird. They just have, like, a sick obsession with tearing me down for some reason,” Kyrgios said.
I can think of a bunch of reasons, but this is the headspace that seems to work best for Kyrgios.
In his quarter-final against Brandon Nakashima, Kyrgios could find no emotional hand-hold on the steady American. You could feel his game fading out of focus. Then he made a terrible challenge on a ball that was miles out, and began berating the umpire for failing to save him from his own stupidity. It was a completely pointless screed. But after that, his game snapped back into focus. If Kyrgios isn’t angry, then sometimes he just isn’t bothered.
This scattershot frustration can result in unintentionally hilarious lines. On Friday, he described himself as “an inspiration for any sort of kid who’s kind of been outcast or just been surrounded by negative headlines.”
Totally relatable. Many of us have a grade-school horror story about that time the Toronto Sun took a pop at us on the front page.
Being stood up in front of a microphone day after day while a room full of supplicants asks you searching questions is not a healthy environment for most people. The most obvious danger is early onset narcissism. Kyrgios has got it bad, but at least he provides some entertainment along with the egomania.
As Kyrgios pointedly noted, Djokovic used to have the same problem. His need to get laughs and be liked put a lot of people off. But he won so often that the eagerness to please was eventually interviewed out of him. Nowadays, he sits up there with a beatific grin that never quite synchs with the smoulder in his eyes.
It is especially apparent after the year he’s had. Now he has the perfect final for purposes of revenge.
If Djokovic wins, he reasserts himself as the game’s best player, and very possibly disappears until the 2023 French Open. Like The Shadow.
If he loses, he elevates a new brother in arms and injects a different element of chaos into the men’s game.