Kyrgios could be Djokovic’s match – if he is physically and...


Kyrgios could be Djokovic’s match – if he is physically and mentally present

The Australian thinks he could be the only player able to tame the world no 1 on Wimbledon’s grass courts. ZIRK VAN DEN BERG seems to agree with him.


“MAN who predicts what the future looks like will soon fall flat on his face,” Confucius said. (This is my version and I'm sticking to it.)

But I have been very willing to have my pride punctured since childhood and therefore I predict here and now that there are only four realistic candidates to win at Wimbledon this year: one of the top three, or Nick Kyrgios.

The world no 1, Novak Djokovic, is the most likely winner. He has won every Slam he has entered in the last 12 months, and the last time he lost at Wimbledon was in 2017. But maybe his sore elbow will trip him up (imagine that). Daniil Medvedev might stop him. Carlos Alcaraz has not been in action on grass enough for us to know how well he can move on this surface.

Looking further down the rankings, the names of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Holger Rune and Casper Ruud jump out, but they are all at their best on clay. (The underestimated Ruud has played in three of the last five Slam finals, an achievement not to be sneezed at.)

Félix Auger-Aliassime has the right style for grass but he is struggling this year. Maybe Jannik Sinner will finally show his mettle, while Milos Raonic is back on the court after a two-year hiatus. He reached the Wimbledon final several years ago. Alexander Zverev could be a factor, but he has a feeble second serve and nerves made of wool.

Another possibility is an outsider with an almighty  serve and quick hands at the net — someone like Maxime Cressy, whose serve-and-volley style is perfect for grass.

Incidentally, former Wimbledon champion John McEnroe revealed that this style used to be popular because the grass courts were in such poor condition. You wanted to hit the ball before it hit the ground because it could jump in any direction.

The courts are better these days but a good serve-and-volley game on grass is still more valuable than elsewhere, especially early in the tournament when the grass is slippery.

The luck of the draw

Another important unpredictable element is the draw. This is done in such a way that two seeded players cannot play against each other before the third round, the top 16 not before the fourth round, the top eight not before the quarter-finals, the top four not before the semi-finals and the two top not before the final. The chosen ones are in effect protected against their strongest opponents.

The problem for some of the favourites could start in the third round; one of them may then face Kyrgios, who deservedly reached the final last year. On grass he is at least one of the four best in the world.

For Alcaraz, Djokovic or Medvedev, a showdown with him could mean a premature end to their tournament. The impetuous Australian's record against Djokovic is three games, two wins. Against Medvedev it is three wins out of four. He has never played Alcaraz. But when Kyrgios is at his best, it doesn't much matter who is on the other side of the net.

Since beating the number one player in 2014, Rafael Nadal, to reach the quarter-finals when he was still a teenager, Kyrgios has shown that he has the talent to go on the rampage on grass. Unfortunately he has other problems.

Unfit, bad-tempered and crude

One of these was his lack of fitness, which prevented him from progressing deep into tournaments over the years, especially in the Slams. An ache or pain always popped up. He mostly rectified this problem last year and at the same time revealed a more committed attitude.

Kyrgios’s more famous problem is that he is emotionally as stable as white phosphorus. His oversensitivity is legendary. He tends to see himself as a victim who has been wronged in many ways, including by racism (his mother is Malaysian.) And there are problems with depression, which he is open about. With a new girlfriend by his side, things seem to be better off the court, but his mind can still become unhinged during matches.

Superficial qualities make things worse. For example, Kyrgios uses the f-word as if it were somewhat commonplace — which is admittedly the case for someone of his age and background. But on a tennis court he is punished if he lets off steam like that.

Some regard him as an utter scoundrel. 

Good-hearted genius

However, there is another side to Kyrgios: he is obviously a good-hearted person.

He once stopped on the side of the road to help people with a flat tyre (he didn’t say anything about it, they did.) Then there is his NK Foundation, which helps underprivileged children, as well as his initiative to raise funds when wildfires swept his country.

He also often stands up for fellow players, for example for Djokovic with the Covid vaccination saga, for Simona Halep with her steroid problems, and for Emma Raducanu after her weak performances since her great triumph in the US Open.

Then there is the fact that he is a genius on court. He has the best serve in tennis. Full stop. Ask renowned coach Patrick Mouratoglou — Kyrgios’ serve is the model to aspire to.

His hand skills are at the level of Roger Federer. And he hits harder. (Watch a Kyrgios highlights video on YouTube if you don’t believe me.) During an informal reaction test of top tennis players a few years ago, he was the fastest.

He once remarked after a game that trying to play it safe against his extremely steady opponent would be the least safe option for him: to win, he has to take chances. That’s not a dime-a-dozen kind of insight among tennis players.

But it is a cosmic mystery to predict which Kyrgios will show up at Wimbledon this year. He has played only one match this year — on grass in Stuttgart — and lost. He could barely manage to walk off the court and withdrew from the next tournament.

Perhaps that’s why he won’t show up at Wimbledon at all. Or perhaps we will see the pathetic guy who feels sorry for himself.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ll see the fun-loving fellow who jokes with spectators, skips across the court in a carefree manner and performs miracles with his racquet.

This dude can definitely win the tournament.

♦ VWB ♦

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