Novak Djokovic v Nick Kyrgios: two very different athletes and men clash for Wimbledon title | Wimbledon 2022

For one of the best sportspeople who has ever lived, Novak Djokovic really does have lousy timing. In January, he couldn’t have picked a worse time to pack his rackets, log onto Instagram and fly to Australia. In the lead up to the Australian Open, Melbourne was a muggy, deserted, Covid-riven and pissed-off city.

At the time, it was hard to secure fresh produce, painkillers, dog kibble and rapid antigen tests. The prime minister was useless. A six-year old girl was stabbed and killed. A mass brawl broke out at a supermarket, with one shopper whacked over the head with a saucepan. The city was in no mood for wise cracking superstars unwilling to disclose their vaccination status.

Djokovic had history. A year earlier, he’d penned an open letter to the people of Australia, which ought to have been grounds for a 14-day quarantine in itself. Some of his more lowly-ranked brethren were holed up in hotels whacking forehands against fridges, trapping rodents and going nuts. Djokovic’s call for preferential treatment fell on deaf ears.

But he really pushed his luck this January. Djokovic’s mug led the news for more than a week. His supporters were camped outside his quarantine hotel, singing Balkan folk songs. The live stream of his visa appeal was bedevilled by lengthy dropouts, porn and spamming. The local newspapers published columns by comedians, immigration lawyers and experts on Serbian nationalism. They pondered which actor would play him in a mini-series. The prime minister, always energised on border control matters, played the hard man.

In the end, the story wore us down. It was like watching one of Djokovic’s five setters – not exactly pleasant viewing, but you couldn’t look away. There was a lot of contorting, a lot of yelling, a reset. Novak treated the saga, Jonathan Liew wrote on these pages, “with an unshakeable and messianic belief in his own supremacy. He contested his deportation as if it were a crucial break point, as if it were his last stand against total oblivion”.

Djokovic was on a hiding to nothing though. Australia’s prissy tennis crowds and press have never warmed to him. Roger and Rafa were unimpeachable, and tough acts to follow. Novak desperately sought similar status. He tried to play the court jester, and tennis crowds cringed. In 2012, he prevailed in one of the most extraordinary sporting contests ever seen in this country. But the harder he tried to draw them in, the more they pulled away.

Australian crowds sensed his siege mentality, his aching need. They applauded grudgingly. They were never really openly hostile – tennis crowds are generally too polite and puckered up for that. But there was a sullen resentment at Djokovic matches. People clapped slowly, if at all. They’d turn to their partner and make a face. He sensed that, and it wounded him. It spurred him too. He was always at his best when the crowd was blatantly against him, when the animal within was unleashed.

It’s a shame, and possibly unfair. Unlike most tennis players, Djokovic has a genuinely interesting story to tell. He grew up with Nato bombs raining down on him. He’s always been a gracious loser, a humble winner, and a thoughtful interviewee. And despite his thoughts on vaccination, nutrition and geopolitics, he’s an astonishing tennis player.

I’ve never seen a sportsperson with a more innate grasp of risk and reward than Novak Djokovic. With apologies to Viv Richards, I’ve never seen a sportsperson with more authoritative body language. I’ve never seen anyone better as putting aside a poor half hour, at extricating himself, at resetting, at finding a way. Brian Phillips, who has written about him better than anyone, refers to his “almost supernatural perseverance”. It’s almost disturbing to watch sometimes. It’s certainly exhausting. God knows what it’s like from the other side of the net.

Nick Kyrgios is about to find out. It’s hard to think of two more different men. It’s hard to think of two more different sportspeople. One is a master of his craft; the other a virtual exhibition player. One is consumed by being the greatest of all time; the other often seems bored by his job. One desperately covets our love and awe; the other’s entire persona is built upon not giving a stuff what anyone thinks.

Back in the day, a Wimbledon final featuring an Australian would stop the country. The prime minister would mug for the camera. Bleary-eyed water cooler bores were suddenly serve-volley enthusiasts. The winners got Australian of the Year nominations. There’s none of that this time. The Herald Sun headline “Man-child Kyrgios embodies the worst excesses of his generation” pretty much sums up the prevailing sentiment in Australia right now.

But the image of Djokovic sauntering into Australia and slinking out is hard to forget and forgive. We’re left with the very thing tennis crowds fear most – no one to cheer for. We’re left with a welcome absence of cheerleaders, track-suited pollies, and ‘“oi oi oi” prats. We’re left with the most overlooked and interesting thing about these two men – their tennis.

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