Seventh Wimbledon and 21st Major for Djoker

The Serb defeated Aussie Nick Kyrgios in four sets.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic holds the winner’s trophy after the final of the men’s singles event at Wimbledon.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic holds the winner’s trophy after the final of the men’s singles event at Wimbledon. | Photo Credit: AP

The Serb defeated Aussie Nick Kyrgios in four sets.

Djokovic can save this train wreck of a year by winning Wimbledon.” — John McEnroe, after Novak Djokovic rebounded from two sets down to beat Jannik Sinner.

Everywhere I go I’m seeing full stadiums. The media loves to write that I am bad for the sport, but [I am] clearly not.” — Nick Kyrgios, after his tempestuous battle with Stefanos Tsitsipas.

This Wimbledon final was no morality play. No good versus evil or hero against villain. Both finalists were flawed, controversial, and even polarising.

One fought for his political beliefs. The other against his inner demons.

They were similar as iconoclasts but far from equivalent as tennis players. One yearned and competed for recognition as the greatest ever (GOAT). The other was a massively underachieving mega-talent who called himself a part-time player. Both were revered and reviled by the sporting public. Both exasperated even their most fervent fans with their maddening decisions.

Novak Djokovic, an exemplary family man whose foundation promotes early childhood education, foolishly staged Covid “super-spreader” tennis exhibitions in May 2020 that infected him and several others. He created an ineffectual rival pro tennis association for dissidents after a series of policy disagreements with the ATP. Though charming and humorous off the court, he occasionally explodes in anger on it. A heavy favourite at the 2020 U.S. Open, a frustrated Djokovic was shockingly disqualified for accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball.

Worst of all, Novak’s reckless refusal to get vaccinated not only endangers others but is sabotaging his career. After he fell just one match win short of a Grand Slam in 2021, his No-Vax stance not only prevented him from defending his Australian Open title in January — when he was detained and deported — but could keep him out of Grand Slam tournaments until the 2023 French Open.

“Certainly this year has not been the same like last years,” Djokovic confided. “Definitely, in the first several months of the year, I was not feeling great generally. I mean, mentally, emotionally, I was not at a good place.”

Nick Kyrgios has proved even more self-destructive. The troubled, 27-year-old Australian has resorted to alcohol, drugs, and acts of self-harm, and suffered from suicidal thoughts and depression. Since he upset Rafael Nadal at the 2014 Wimbledon as a teenager, he made more marks on his body with tattoos than on the sport — not even making a major semifinal until this fortnight. Several tattoos convey his conflicted nature. One says, “Time is running out.” Another says, “Inspire others.” The most recent tat says: “Give a man a mask and he will become his true self.”

But what is Nick’s true self? The immature, self-centred player who admits he’s tanked pro matches when his beloved Boston Celtics lost a game they should have won. The unprofessional athlete who doesn’t have a coach because “I would never put that burden on someone.” A recluse according to his mother who told The Sydney Morning Herald, “Before it was so hard for us to get him to do anything. He was happy to sit in his room and play video games all the time.” This century’s worst “bad boy” about whom Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion, told the BBC: “He’s brought tennis to the lowest level I can see as far as gamesmanship, cheating, manipulation, abuse, aggressive behaviour to umpires, to linesmen.”

Or a misunderstood “nice guy” who eagerly signs autographs for fans and supports his fellow pros in need, as he did for Djokovic during his January detention by the Australian government. Or the beneficent person who has a NK Foundation in Australia with a multi-sports facility “for disadvantaged and underprivileged kids where they could hang out, be safe and feel like they were part of a family.” Or a newly dedicated, albeit unorthodox, athlete who works out four hours a day — devoting one hour to tennis, two to basketball, and one to weight training. Nick hired a physiotherapist to keep him in peak condition and even brings his own scale into the locker room to monitor his weight.

Kyrgios transformation

Christos Kyrgios, Nick’s brother, believes the key to his transformation is Costeen Hatzi, his new girlfriend. Christos told The Sydney Morning Herald, Hatzi “helped open his eyes again…. There was a lot of chaos in Nick’s life before he met her. The way he wanted his life to be was not the way things were unfolding.”

While Wimbledon ended with the Novak and Nick Show, it started quite differently. The tennis world focussed on Nadal’s quest for a rare men’s Grand Slam, last achieved by Rod Laver in 1969. Nadal had grabbed the Australian and French Opens, which also broke his three-way major titles tie with Djokovic and Roger Federer at 20.

The Wimbledon ban sidelined two Russian contenders, No. 1 and U.S. Open champ Daniil Medvedev and No. 8 Andrey Rublev. The field was further diminished by the absence of No. 2 Alexander Zverev, recovering from an ankle injury suffered against Nadal at the French Open, and No. 5 and 2021 finalist Matteo Berrettini, and 2017 finalist Marin Cilic, both of whom contracted Covid.

An intriguing fourth-rounder featured two future stars, Jannik Sinner, 20, and Carlos Alcaraz, 19. Sinner saved all seven break points to prevail 6-1, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-3 and become the youngest man to reach the quarters since Kyrgios in 2014. Afterwards, a self-critical Alcaraz, who predicted two months ago he’d win a major this year, praised his conqueror but also admitted, “I have to manage the nerves better. It cost me some today.”

Before Sinner faced Djokovic in the quarterfinals, former No. 1 Jim Courier said, “Sinner has to improve his defence. Quickness is what matters most in tennis. His offence is tremendous.” Indeed, it took two sets before the more experienced and resourceful Serb reversed the momentum for a 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 victory. Djokovic said he gave himself “a little pep talk” in the bathroom mirror during a break after the second set. A tactical key to the sudden turnaround was Djokovic’s hitting 32% of his groundstrokes from inside the baseline in the third set compared to only 13% in the first two sets.

Leading 4-2, deuce in the fifth set, Novak pulled off his trademark extreme open-stance backhand doing the splits for a spectacular passing shot. This time he landed on his stomach and hammed it up by flapping his arms as if he were Superman about to take flight. The pro-Sinner crowd gave him a loud ovation.

Cameron Norrie, now Britain’s best man with Andy Murray in the twilight of his career, gave his country plenty to cheer about. Born in South Africa, raised in New Zealand, college-educated at TCU in the U.S., and residing near Wimbledon, Cam rode his bicycle on off days to the All-England Club.

The 26-year-old lefty, ranked No. 12, outlasted Belgium veteran David Goffin in a 3-6, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 quarterfinal marathon. Although Norrie had the slowest combined groundstroke average speed among the top-50 players and also served relatively slowly, he was surprisingly effective. “Norrie is a massage artist,” said Courier. “He is incredibly fit. He’s clever and knows how to limit his opponent’s opportunities. And he has great rally tolerance.”

Norrie’s attributes

In his first major semifinal, Norrie learned those attributes weren’t enough to compete against Djokovic, a superior athlete and stroke technician. For one set, though, the defending champion had trouble adjusting to the variety of the Brit’s groundstrokes — a topspin forehand with a 3,020 rpm spin rate and an ultra-flat backhand at 1,209 rpm. Not even boisterous spectators could help their man once Djokovic settled down and then cruised to a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win. When a heckler yelled out before Djokovic’s last serve, the Serb sarcastically blew a kiss to him. It was a rare lapse because Djokovic knew that keeping his cool would be critical in the final.

Tim van Rijthoven, a muscular 6’2”, 195-pound Dutchman, earned a Wimbledon wild card thanks to a brilliant performance at the Libema Open tune-up event. There the 25-year-old late-bloomer shocked Taylor Fritz, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Medvedev for his first pro title. At Wimbledon, he overpowered 15th-seeded Reilly Opelka and 22nd-seeded Nikoloz Basilashvili before Djokovic ended his fairytale run. “I decided I was going to accept my mistakes and grow up and become an adult,” Van Rijthoven told the New York Times earlier in the year. “I told myself, ‘I’m not going to be negative anymore.’”

Nadal somehow overcame severe foot pain to win the French Open an unbelievable 14th time, but his 36-year-old body broke in the second week at Wimbledon. Not before another heroic comeback, though. Fritz, a 24-year-old American with an improved forehand, a huge serve, and newfound confidence, led Nadal two sets to one. Rafa suffered from severe abdominal pain starting in the second set. Grimacing and taking speed off his serve, he hung tough despite his father and sister motioning from the stands to retire. Of course, Nadal refused to retire or lose. “They told me I need to retire the match,” he said afterwards. “For me was tough to retire in the middle of the match…. Is something that I hate to do it. So I just keep trying, and that’s it.”

In a fifth-set super tiebreaker starting at 6-all in games — the new scoring rule at every major now — the gritty Spaniard raced to a 5-0 lead. He finished fast, too, seizing four of the last five points with a backhand volley winner, a service winner, and two trademark forehand winners. Somehow, despite a 12-year age disadvantage against Fritz, the legend pulled it out 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4). “I can’t think of anyone else who has that will to win, that fighting spirit,” raved McEnroe.

The fighting spirit of Kyrgios, often lamentably missing in recent years, nearly got out of control during his chaotic third-round match against Stefanos Tsitsipas. Nicknamed “The Greek Freak,” the No. 5-ranked Tsitsipas had fared poorly at Wimbledon, winning only three matches in four previous appearances. His frustration mounted during the first two sets as Kyrgios repeatedly hectored the umpire, barked at his Player’s Box, and talked just before Tsitsipas was about to serve.

Method to his madness

Was there a method to Kyrgios’s madness? It turned out that way because Tsitsipas, after losing the second set, became so distracted and angered that he whacked a ball that ricocheted off the stadium wall and hit a spectator. When chair umpire Damien Dumusois gave Tsitsipas a code violation, the enraged Kyrgios shouted, “Default or not? If that is me, you are defaulting me. He has hit a ball in the f****** crowd. Are you dumb? It’s a default brother. It’s a default bro!”

Tennis is a game of inches, and fortunately, no one was hurt. But the incident evoked memories of Djokovic being ejected from the 2020 U.S. Open for hitting a lineswoman in the throat and 17-year-old Denis Shapovalov for belting a ball that hit a chair umpire in the eye from close range. Infuriated at Kyrgios, Tsitsipas twice tried to nail the Aussie with putaway volleys. Spectators at The Championships must have spilled their beloved strawberries and cream as both combatants fought a war of words as well as terrific shots for more than three hours.

Ahead two sets to one, Kyrgios saved a set point when trailing 4-5, 30-40 in the fourth set and recovered from a 5-6, love-30 deficit to force a tiebreaker. Down 6-7, Kyrgios, ever the showman, finessed a half volley drop shot winner, stroked a backhand crosscourt winner into an open court, and feathered a drop shot to elicit a backhand approach error.

Game, set, and wild and crazy match 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7) to unseeded and unrepentant Kyrgios.

The hostilities continued in the press conferences. Tsitsipas charged, “It’s constant bullying, that’s what he does. He bullies the opponents…. He has some good traits in his character, as well. But he also has a very evil side to him, which if it’s exposed, it can really do a lot of harm to the people around him.”

Wearing a shirt with NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman’s name on it and scoffing at the “bully” comment, Kyrgios countered, “He was the one hitting balls at me. He was the one who hit a spectator.... I didn’t do anything. Apart from me going back and forth with the umpire, I did nothing toward Stefanos today that was disrespectful.”

Instead of frowning on the bad behaviour staged the day before the Centenary celebration of its hallowed Centre Court, Wimbledon promoted the entertainment, tweeting: “Unscripted. Unfiltered. Unmissable.”

In his next match, Kyrgios mostly minded his manners and kept his concentration to overcome solid-stroking 56th-ranked Brandon Nakashima, the youngest and least-heralded of America’s New Generation, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-2. Learning that restraint is a winning formula, he played the “good guy” role again to eliminate Cristian Garin, a 43rd-ranked Chilean, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (5) to earn his first semifinal berth at a major — unchartered but exciting waters for Kyrgios.

Afterwards, he declared, “I thought my ship had sailed. Obviously, I didn’t go about things great early in my career and may have wasted that little window. But just really proud of the way I’ve just come back out here.”

The unpredictable Aussie then predicted that his semifinal against Rafael Nadal would be the “most-watched match ever.” The extreme contrasts in personality and game style would have made it a mouth-watering, popcorn match. Unfortunately, it never happened.

Injured Nadal withdraws

A painful muscle tear in his abdomen forced Nadal to withdraw from Wimbledon and end his valiant quest for a Grand Slam. “I always said, for me the most important thing is happiness more than any title,” said the philosophical Spaniard. “Everybody knows how much effort I put in to be here. But I can’t risk that. I believe I can’t win two matches under these circumstances.”

The Big Two — Nadal and Djokovic — had captured 17 of the last 19 Grand Slam events, and now The Djoker faced the challenge of maintaining the legends’ domination.

Rafael Nadal during a press conference after withdrawing from his semifinal match.

Rafael Nadal during a press conference after withdrawing from his semifinal match. | Photo Credit: Joe Toth

For the sports world, this was must-see TV. “Honestly, as a tennis fan, I’m glad that he’s in the final, because he’s got so much talent,” said Djokovic. On their evolving relationship, Kyrgios said, “We definitely have a bit of a bromance now, which is weird. I think everyone knows there was no love lost for a while there.”

Love or no love, it was all business now. “The job is not finished,” Djokovic said. “One thing is for sure: there are going to be a lot of fireworks, emotionally, from both guys.”

Fireworks in final of The Gentlemen’s Championships? It’s happened before. You may remember tempestuous John McEnroe ranting “You can not be serious!” at the umpire. The same McEnroe said, “I’m trying to remember when I’ve been more excited about a men’s final, not knowing who will win.”

The bookies favoured Djokovic, while Watson, the intrepid computer, gave a slight 52% edge to Kyrgios. Perhaps Watson put too much weight on Kyrgios’s 2-0 head-to-head advantage, not taking into account those two matches came on hard courts five years ago when Djokovic suffered from a sore elbow and mental burnout.

In by far the biggest match of his life, Kyrgios looked surprisingly composed. After the Aussie broke serve for 3-2, he skipped to his chair for the changeover. After Nick whacked a 131-mph service win to earn a set point, he shouted at his Player’s Box, “I haven’t heard you once!” He wanted vocal support. He then finished off the 6-4 set with a 126-mph ace.

But Djokovic, who had won an astounding 37 straight matches on Centre Court, started reading and returning Kyrgios’s rocket serves better and extending the rallies. The Serb broke serve at love thanks to a lucky net cord winner to lead 3-1 in the second set. Getting frustrated and perhaps tired, Kyrgios kept chirping at his Player’s Box. Djokovic ignored him.

Winners far exceeded unforced errors as the slightly pro-Kyrgios crowd cheered their dazzling shot-making. Serving for the second set at 5-3, he fell behind love-30 when Nick fashioned a beautiful running forehand winner off a nifty half volley drop shot by Novak. The Serb had to stave off four break points to take the set, 6-3. The disappointed Kyrgios yelled at his team, “Love 40, love 40, God damn!”

Some of the best tennis came in the pivotal third set. “Nick is still playing well,” said McEnroe. “This is about his concentration.” Any lapse of concentration or loss of conditioning would prove fatal against Djokovic. Serving to hold serve in the fifth game, Kyrgios complained about a ball boy, drawing a warning from the chair umpire. When he continued to argue, the fans booed loudly.

Serving at 4-5, and leading 40-love, Kyrgios cracked. He lost three straight points, then double-faulted, and was broken for 6-4 when Djokovic’s strong serve return forced a backhand error. Clearly distracted and deflated, Kyrgios mumbled, “Wait until I get to 40-love and I’ll get broken again.”

The difference

On the difference between the two, McEnroe astutely noted, “When Djokovic goes off, it’s for a point or two. When Kyrgios goes off, it’s for a game or two.”

Both players held serve, usually easily, to force a climactic fourth-set tiebreaker. Djokovic looked relaxed and confident, Kyrgios tense and irritable.

Character is often destiny in life and tennis. Nick blasted a crazy, 123-mph second serve and missed by a half-inch to fall behind 1-0. Novak played with controlled aggression and smart tactics to surge ahead 6-1. The seventh point featured a long exchange of crosscourt backhands, Djokovic’s forte, ended with a Kyrgios error. A Kyrgios forehand winner and ace made the score 6-3. On his third championship point, Djokovic rush net and forced a backhand passing shot error.

The new King of Grass then bent down and munched a blade or two to celebrate, his signature Wimbledon title gesture. He briefly wept tears of joy and relief, covering his face with a towel.

“How does he find the will when everyone is against him, the crowd, the government?” wondered McEnroe.

Praise verging on reverence came from the vanquished Kyrgios. “He [Djokovic] is a bit of a god, I’m not going to lie.” On what it’s like trying to beat this tennis god, Kyrgios said, “You win the first set, and you feel like you have to climb Mount Everest to get it done.”

Djokovic rhapsodised about Wimbledon, the place that inspired him and then fulfilled his boyhood dreams. “I have lost words for what this tournament, what this trophy means to me, to my team and family,” he told the Centre Court crowd. “It always has been and will be the most special tournament in my heart, the one that motivated me, inspired me to start playing tennis in a small little mountain resort in Serbia where my parents used to run a restaurant. I was four or five years old, I saw Pete Sampras win his first Wimbledon in 1992 [actually 1993]. I asked my dad and mum to buy me a racquet, my first image of tennis was grass and Wimbledon. I always dreamt of coming here, playing on this court, and, of course, realising the childhood dream of winning this trophy. Every single time, it gets more and more meaningful and special. I am very blessed and very thankful to be standing here with the trophy.”

The future for both the champion and the runner-up remains uncertain, however. A former girlfriend charged Kyrgios with common assault, and he’ll face legal proceedings in Canberra, Australia, in early August.

On why he won’t play the U.S . Open starting August 28, the defiant Djokovic said, “I’m not vaccinated and I’m not planning to get vaccinated, so the only good news I can have is them removing the mandated green vaccine card or whatever you call it to enter the United States or exemption. [But] I don’t think an exemption is realistically possible.”

Shakespeare put it best when he observed, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.”

Rybakina puts Kazakhstan on the tennis map

How ironic that the new champion of the world’s most famous tennis tournament represents an obscure country many people outside Central Asia couldn’t locate on the map. Even more ironic is that Elena Rybakina left her family and native Russia four years ago for Kazakhstan to pursue her tennis dreams because the Russian tennis federation didn’t think much of her talent or potential. “I didn’t choose where I was born,” Rybakina said. “People believed in me. Kazakhstan supported me [with funding] so much.”

Most ironic, though, is that Wimbledon, after banning Russian and Belarusian players due to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, still wound up with a Russian-born and -raised champion who lives in Moscow during part of the off-season. Low-key and diplomatic about the political controversy, Rybakina always said the right thing during the historic fortnight. “I feel for the players who couldn’t come here,” she commented at a press conference.

Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina poses with the trophy after winning the Wimbledon women’s singles final against Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur.

Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina poses with the trophy after winning the Wimbledon women’s singles final against Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur. | Photo Credit: Toby Melville

As a tennis trailblazer for her adopted country, Rybakina had much in common with Ons Jabeur, also in her maiden Grand Slam final — the first time two women debuted in a Grand Slam final since 1962. Similarly, the more outgoing Jabeur represented a nation without much of a tennis heritage. She was bidding to become the first Tunisian, Arab, and African woman to capture a Grand Slam title in the Open Era (since 1968). None had even reached a major singles final before.

“It’s always about Tunisia somehow. I want to go bigger, inspire many more generations,” Jabeur said after winning her Wimbledon semifinal. “Tunisia is connected to the Arab world, is connected to the African continent. It’s not like Europe or any other country. I want to see more players from my country, from the Middle East, from Africa. I think we didn’t believe enough at a certain point that we can do it. Now I’m just trying to show that. Hopefully, people are getting inspired.”

Indeed, Tunisia, the country that ignited the Arab Spring in 2010, could hardly have asked for a more appealing goodwill exemplar to ignite tennis. When asked about Boris Johnson’s resignation as U.K. Prime Minister, the smiling Jabeur quipped, “I don’t really know, but I am the Minister of Happiness.” That’s her symbolic title back home, but some admirers in Tunisia believe their national icon deserves more.

“Her performance at Wimbledon will mark history,” said Tunisia’s Minister of Youth and Sport, Kamel Deguiche. “The state should have commitments to a person like Ons, given the services rendered to the homeland and her contribution to giving a shining image of Tunisia.” Deguiche wants the government to designate her an official ambassador of Tunisia.

While Elena’s and Ons’s storylines were similar, their playing styles contrasted more sharply than any finalists at a major since heavy-hitting Serena Williams whipped touch artist Agnieszka Radwanska here 10 years ago. Rybakina, a slender but broad-shouldered 6’, slugged a tournament-leading 49 aces going into the final and a WTA Tour-leading 217 aces this year. Her first serve, which peaked at 122 mph, was returned only 51% of the time, which helped her win a remarkable 86% of her service games. She also pounded her groundstrokes to dictate rallies and avoid playing defence, not her forte. On her straightforward power game, ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs said, “There is no game plan B for her.”

Nearly a head shorter at 5’6”, Jabeur relied on athleticism, creativity, and guile. Her entertaining bag of tricks featured devilish drop shots and angles, changes of pace and spin, and the occasional back-to-the-net “ tweener.” Ons’s forehand was her biggest weapon, though she first served respectably in the 100-110 mph range. Versatile and adaptable, she often changed her game plan when it wasn’t working.

Different confidence levels

Their confidence levels also differed markedly. Odds-makers made 23rd-ranked Rybakina a 100-1 pre-tournament longshot. She lost her last four finals, and also lost the momentum she built in early 2020 before the Covid pandemic shut down the pro tour for five months. Her mediocre results continued this June when Elena won just one match at two tune-up events on grass before Wimbledon. No wonder the unassuming Rybakina said, “I didn’t expect that I’m going to be here in the second week, especially in the final.”

For her part, Jabeur promised she’d win the 2022 Wimbledon after she lost in the quarterfinals here a year ago. This season her confidence only grew when she captured the Madrid Open on clay and, especially, the Berlin grass-court event, beating French Open runner-up Coco Gauff and Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic.

The draw opened up auspiciously for both finalists due to the unprecedented parity in women’s tennis, a trend accelerated by the surprise retirement of Ash Barty in March and the unexpected decline of former No. 1 Naomi Osaka. The Wimbledon ban further weakened the field, preventing No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka, a semifinalist last year, No. 13 Daria Kasatkina, No. 21 Veronika Kudermetova, and No. 30 Ekaterina Alexandrova from competing. As a result, Jabeur had to face only one seed, No. 24 Elise Mertens, en route to the final.

In the much-stronger half of the draw, Rybakina disposed of far tougher opponents like 2019 U.S . Open champ Bianca Andreescu , rising Chinese star Qinwen Zheng, and 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep . The smooth-stroking, 5’6” Romanian had won 21 straight sets and 12 straight matches at Wimbledon, but Rybakina overwhelmed her 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals. “We know she had power, but we didn’t know she could harness it this consistently,” said all-time great Chris Evert, an ESPN analyst.

Except for No. 3 Jabeur , the weakest top 10 in years again floundered at a major. Anett Kontaveit , unjustifiably seeded No. 2, crashed 6-4, 6-0 in the second round to No. 97-ranked Jule Neimeier , an aggressive, 22-year-old German, who said, “I play like a man. I have power. I have a big serve. I am creative.” No. 4 Paula Badosa made it to the fourth round where Halep walloped her 6-1, 6-2, prompting Evert to say, “ Badosa should add variety to her game and add more topspin when she hits [ groundstrokes ] hard.”

No. 5 Maria Sakkari went out 6-3, 7-5 in the third round to surprise semifinalist, No. 103-ranked Tatjana Maria, a 34-year-old mother of two. At the urging of her husband, Maria, a 500-1 super-longshot , switched from a two-handed backhand to a one-hander, which she usually slices. “People said I was crazy to make the switch, and I’d never be in the top 600 again,” recalled Maria, who proved them wrong by also upsetting No. 12 Jelena Ostapenko and No. 26 Sorana Cristea to reach the semis. The Cinderella run ended when Jabeur prevailed 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 over her “ Barbeque Buddy” — a term of endearment as Jabeur is so close to Maria and her two young daughters.

No. 6 Karolina Pliskova , a finalist last year, was upset 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 by Katie Boulter, a wild card ranked 118 th . The Englishwoman’s performance was especially impressive, given her grandmother passed away two days early. Afterwards, she told the supportive crowd which included her grandfather, “It’s been a tough few days for sure. I’ve tried to kind of get my emotions out and deal with the situation, try and keep my head on the tennis.” Lastly, hard-hitting No. 8 Danielle Collins, a 2022 Aussie Open finalist, fell 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 to No. 66 Marie Bouzkova in the first round. “I knew Bouzkova was a solid counter-puncher, but I’ve been surprised at how much variety she has,” said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe.

Not even red-hot Iga Swiatek could break this spell of upsets. Riding a 35-match winning streak, highlighted by her second French Open title three weeks earlier, the No. 1 Swiatek nearly doubled Kontaveit in ranking points, 8,576 to 4,340. In the third round, the 21-year-old Pole faced Alize Cornet, ranked No. 37 with a history of giant-killing. Cornet had racked up 23 wins over top-10 foes, including three over Serena Williams when she ranked No. 1. The clever French veteran outplayed and outsmarted Swiatek 6-4, 6-2, making only seven unforced errors, versus 33 for the erratic Swiatek .

“Usually when I’m coming back, I have some kind of a plan, and I know what to change,” Swiatek said. “Here I didn’t know. I was confused. On grass courts, everything happens so quickly. I didn’t tank it, but I just didn’t know what to do.” This stunning admission underscored the importance of self-reliance in tennis. Coaching is rightly prohibited at Grand Slam tournaments, unlike WTA events. Swiatek’s setback also made a strong case why coaching should be abolished — except at team events — yet the U.S . Open decided to allow it on an experimental basis this year.

Challenge for Jabeur

The versatile and resourceful Jabeur knew what to do, but a bigger question loomed for her. As Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport said, “The challenge for Jabeur is that Rybakina hits so hard and heavy she won’t have much time to hit finesse shots.”

The late-blooming Jabeur , 27, is coached by her husband and travels with a sports psychologist and a physical trainer. Displaying her poise and experience in the opening set, she grabbed two service breaks (and held two break points in another game) to prevail 6-3. Rybakina , rattled a bit in her Grand Slam final debut, won only 53% of her first-serve points, hit no aces, and missed some routine volleys.

Though Jabeur may not have known that the last 14 Wimbledon champions had won the opening set of their finals, she had reason to be confident — but not overconfident.

Rybakina settled down and promptly reversed the momentum, breaking Jabeur’s serve to start the second set. Elena staved off a break point with a 117-mph ace in the next game to go ahead 2-0. She escaped a more serious crisis in the fourth game, fighting off three more break points, thanks to a forehand winner, a backhand volley winner, and an unforced backhand error by Jabeur . After another unforced backhand error, the Tunisian tossed her racquet high in the air in frustration. Yet another unforced error gave Rybakina a 3-1 lead.

Jabeur looked discombobulated as she lost serve with a series of unforced errors to fall behind 4-1. Her shot selection became questionable at best, especially when she foolishly attempted a behind-the-back backhand and missed badly. “ Jabeur is a little casual at a time when she shouldn’t be,” Davenport understated.

When Rybakina closed out the second set, 6-2, with a bang — two unreturnable serves, a forehand winner, and an ace — Bulat Utemuratov , the proud president of the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation, smiled. His faith in her proved more than justified.

The deciding set was almost a replay of the second set. Anticipating and moving better, Rybakina broke serve in the opening game when Jabeur unwisely tried a slice forehand passing shot that Rybakina easily volleyed for a winner. Once again, the gutsy Rybakina averted a triple break point crisis, this time in the sixth game to extend her lead to 4-2.

When Jabeur’s forehand passing shot sailed wide to put her down 2-4, 15-30, Evert said, “Now Rybakina is coming to net. I’m going to have to take back everything I said about her volley.”

Indeed, Elena was winning points everywhere as her relentless offence broke down Jabeur’s defence. A second service break sent Rybakina ahead 5-2, and she took the last three points for a convincing 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 triumph and her first major title.

Muted victory celebration

Consistent with her stoic personality, there was no celebration, other than a racquet tap, a quick wave to the crowd, and a small smile toward her Player’s Box. There was no collapsing on her knees, a ritual Bjorn Borg started nearly 50 years ago and Rafael Nadal does now, no Venus Williams pirouette, and no chewing the grass a la Novak Djokovic. “This was the most subdued [final victory] reaction in the history of Wimbledon,” noted Pam Shriver , an ESPN analyst. “I need to teach her how to celebrate really good,” quipped Jabeur .

Rybakina does have a sense of humour, though. Asked afterwards by ESPN if she had ever thought about what she would do for a victory gesture if she won a major, Rybakina answered, “I was always very calm. And my friends would laugh and say, ‘What are you going to do when you win a Grand Slam? Just shake hands like this?’” extending her right hand.

Only once during the fortnight did Elena display a lot of emotion. When a reporter asked what her parents back in Russia would think of her feat, Elena wept, her face turned red, and she covered her face with her hands. She said, “They’re going to be super proud.” Then she quipped: “You wanted to see emotion!” The media room cracked up with laughter and then applauded.

Rybakina’s classic strokes, imposing physique, and power game most resemble those of Maria Sharapova, another attractive Russian native who left her native land to advance her career. Teen queen Sharapova wound up with five Grand Slam titles and an estimated $250 million in endorsements. “If she can improve her forecourt game, she’s definitely top 3 in the world,” predicted Evert.

Even if Rybakina never captures another major, Kazakhstan’s newest sports star will likely become an inspiration for young tennis players, especially girls, in Central Asia’s most prosperous nation, much like Li Na was a decade ago in China.

“Maybe I proved that [you don’t always] have to have a great team from a young age because I didn’t till the age of 17, 18,” she said. “So I think this is the most important thing, that everybody, no matter their financial situation, no matter who they are, they can play and achieve many great results.”

Indeed, they can, especially in Kazakhstan. The home page on its tennis federation’s website displays a photo of the beaming Utemuratov . The caption underneath proudly proclaims: “Kazakhstan — is a new tennis power on the world map!”

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