Sunday’s men’s Wimbledon final ended in a tiebreak that felt like the match, and Nick Kyrgios’ career, in miniature.
The flashy, volatile (to put it mildly) Australian had held his own against three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic, only to lose his temper and his concentration in a couple of key moments to fall behind two sets to one. Still, Kyrgios had avoided completely falling apart—a huge victory for the most combustible man in sports—and at times channeled his rage into breathtaking tennis. Then, during that deciding fourth-set tiebreak, he lost point after point on serve and started screaming, “What are you scared of?!” at his supporters in his player’s box. Down 1-6, he began shaking his head, enraged, seemingly already defeated and … rattled off two brilliant serves. Djokovic, the greatest returner in the world, got his racket on the first, but just barely, sending a high ball over the net that Kyrgios flicked crosscourt for a winner. The second, an off-speed dagger out wide, totally deceived Djokovic, who got nowhere near it. But this brilliance came too late. Djokovic won the next point, and the championship was his.
Or was it? Sure, Djokovic won the tournament—his 21st grand slam title, one behind Rafael Nadal and one ahead of Roger Federer—but his opponent won the world’s attention. Djokovic’s victory felt less like a crowning achievement for an all-time great than the latest installment in the Nick Kyrgios show, another chapter in a legend that looms about as tall as Jesse James’ or Billy the Kid’s. I was half-surprised that the headlines after the match did not read “Nick Kyrgios Loses First Wimbledon Final,” given how little attention Djokovic received over the course of a tournament he was almost certain to win. But perhaps this was the inevitable result of two years in which tennis itself has mostly played second fiddle to a series of off-court dramas that the sport’s establishment has proved too timid to handle.
Take Kyrgios himself. The man insists he is good for the game and, as the most naturally talented and charismatic player of his generation, he’s not entirely wrong. He’s on the short list of greatest servers of all time, and he backs up his intimidating power with grace, touch, cleverness, and the occasional underarm serve or tweener tossed in to please the crowd and entertain himself. His ability to deny his opponents rhythm clearly flustered Djokovic in the first set, which Djokovic lost 4-6 after double-faulting on break point.
Kyrgios also screams at his box, at himself, the ball kids, the linespeople, the chair umpires, and the crowd. He has been outspoken about not practicing, and tanks points, games, and occasionally matches. Last weekend, his incessant chattering and complaining drove his opponent Stefanos Tsitsipas into such a state that Tsitsipas started pegging Kyrgios with balls and said after the match that the Aussie had an “evil side.” (Kyrgios laughed off Tsitsipas’ comments, calling his Greek opponent “soft.”)
Kyrgios’ list of on-court outbursts is too long to summarize, but one standout came in 2015, when he shouted at an opponent that another player had “banged your girlfriend.” When he hit the big stage almost a decade ago, beating Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of Wimbledon, the conventional wisdom was that he was a brilliant player who, if he could only harness his talent, would contend at the slams and likely win a few. Now, eight years later the conventional wisdom is exactly the same. The 27-year-old Kyrgios has won only six singles titles, while 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, the rising star of the next generation, has already won five. Kyrgios seems outwardly unbothered by all this wasted potential. He’s claimed that he plays tennis because “it’s an easy way to make money,” and, as the fines for his misconduct remain dwarfed by his winnings and endorsement deals, there’s little incentive for him to change his behavior.
Kyrgios has acknowledged his own on- and off-court struggles, at times admirably. In February, he posted on Instagram about his struggles with depression, substance abuse, and self-harm. He urged his millions of followers not to “feel as if you are alone … reach out. I’m proud to say I’ve completely turned myself around and have a completely different outlook on everything. … I want you to be able to reach your full potential and smile. This life is beautiful.”
The post came on the heels of Kyrgios’s surprise doubles win at the Australian Open, a victory that had plenty of commentators talking about his newfound maturity. But numbers on a scoreboard don’t tell us much about what’s going on inside Kyrgios’ head, and who he is when he’s not in tennis gear. There was no better reminder of that than the report that emerged during the tournament that he’s facing an assault allegation from an ex-girlfriend in Australia.
You could be forgiven for wondering who, exactly, one was meant to root for on Sunday. Kyrgios’ opponent, Novak Djokovic, is probably the greatest tennis player of all time, but his recent behavior has hardly been befitting of a champion. He spent the early days of the pandemic hawking pseudoscience on his Instagram feed and hosting a tournament that turned into a superspreader event. He was then bounced from the U.S. Open in 2020 for hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball. He was deported from Australia this year after a long political squabble that began with his refusal to get vaccinated, and will likely not be able to play this year’s U.S. Open for the same reason.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club, by contrast, had no issue with Djokovic’s presence, and did basically nothing to mitigate the spread of COVID at this year’s event: no vaccine requirement, no masks, no testing. Three of the top 20 men in the field, including one of the pre-tournament favorites, Matteo Berrettini, withdrew of their own volition after contracting the virus.
But there was one stand the AELTC was willing to take: bowing to political pressure from Boris Johnson’s xenophobic administration and banning Russian and Belarussian players—including world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev—from competing. In both cases, Wimbledon made the wrong decision, endangering the health of players, workers, and fans while punishing athletes for their nations’ misdeeds.
Some have argued that Wimbledon’s Russia ban, while unfair to individuals, is the price that Vladimir Putin’s nation must pay for its war crimes. But there’s little evidence to suggest that the AELTC’s decision was motivated by sincere political belief. Consider that the club also made sure that there was no mention of the Chinese government’s mistreatment of Peng Shuai, the tennis player who effectively disappeared after accusing a top government official of rape, only to resurface briefly to issue an impossible-to-believe statement retracting the charge. Protestors who wore “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts were searched by security and instructed not to talk to any other fans. When a spectator got forcibly ejected from Centre Court for shouting “Where is Peng Shuai?” during the final, the ESPN booth of Chris Fowler, John McEnroe, and Patrick McEnroe ignored the subject entirely. (It’s possible they didn’t hear the message, but nor did they follow up once the story hit the wires.)
And so, on Sunday, we were treated to a match-up between players with a proclivity for making terrible choices at a tournament that’s made its own series of reprehensible decisions. The moment the match was over, Kyrgios seemed relieved. He ran up to the net, congratulated a grinning Djokovic, and shook the hand of an umpire he’d spent long stretches of the match screaming at. The smiles continued during a trophy ceremony filled with graciousness from all involved. Djokovic joked about their emerging “bromance”; while Kyrgios had been among the most outspoken critics of Djokovic’s behavior during the pandemic, the two made peace before the final, betting the cost of a celebratory dinner on the outcome. And Kyrgios was at his charmingly frank best, responding in the negative to a question about whether he was hungry to make more slam finals. “Absolutely not,” he said, to the crowd’s amusement. “I’m so tired.”
I shared Kyrgios’s sense of relief, but not the sense from both men that it had all been good fun. Watching the final, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the incredible tennis. Each set was won by thin margins, with Kyrgios’ dialed-in aggression forcing Djokovic to come up with spectacular shot-making. But what should’ve been a celebration of tennis at its best instead felt like an indictment of a sport that’s lost its way. Tennis’ COVID era has demonstrated again and again that the companies that make money off the game and the institutions that govern it are at best feckless and at worse immoral. Perhaps Kyrgios’ question to his box—what are you scared of?!—is one that’s better directed to the people who run his sport.