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KYRGIOS-ITY ASIDE, SAVOR THE G.O.A.T. ERA WHILE IT’S STILL HERE
The combustible Aussie's collapse reminds us that tennis’ golden age won’t be followed by another — all the more reason to behold the twilight of Djokovic and Nadal and the end of Federer and Williams
In the Tik Tok vernacular, Nick Kyrgios is lit, slaying it, a perpetual blitz of trending videos showcasing his tantrums and trick shots. For the kids, he’s the tennis version of Antonio Brown and Kyrie Irving, an ultra-talented athlete who provides entertainment via epic moments of self-destruction and non-conformity. For those oblivious to tradition and legacy, he’s a rare reason to care about a marginally woke, predominantly white, stubbornly rigid sport.
They don’t mind so much that he coughed up the Wimbledon men’s final Sunday, gifting away his best opportunity to prove, as he’d hoped, “that I’m really good.” More importantly in today’s content-is-king culture, Kyrgios gave everyone something to talk and tweet about in his backward cap. He was making Novak Djokovic sweat on Centre Court, figuratively and literally, but as so often happens in his mental cobwebbery, he couldn’t dodge his demons. There they were again, after he’d won the first set with filthy ease, attacking his senses as he held three break points and was poised to extend the second set to a possible tiebreaker.
Why was he shockingly nonchalant on two service returns? When he went on to lose the game and, quickly, the set, Kyrgios berated his nearby entourage and began talking to himself: “It was love-40! Can it get any bigger or what?! Is that big enough for you?!” The match could have been called there and then, as Kyrgios became more consumed with expletive drops, arguments with the chair umpire and a toss of his water bottle.
“Fear of failure,” John McEnroe said in the ESPN booth. Four decades earlier, he was guilty of the same boorish behavior, which led him, by his count, to see “37 psychiatrists and psychologists” through the years. But McEnroe still managed one of the most successful playing careers ever. Kyrgios, at 27, remains a lost cause, proceeding to prioritize the removal of a mouthy fan over the most critical match of his life.
Burning the chair ump’s eardrums, he implored: “I know exactly which one it is. It’s the one who looks like she’s had about 700 drinks, bro. … Distracting me when I’m serving in a Wimbledon final. There’s not a bigger occasion. You didn’t believe me. And she did it again. It nearly cost me the game. Why is she still here? She’s drunk out of her mind in the first row, speaking to me in the middle of a game. What’s acceptable? Nothing is acceptable? So kick her out!” All while a stoic Djokovic, no saint himself, watched his bratty opponent continue to implode.
Would you believe Kyrgios, during a loud and stormy fortnight, had the delusional audacity to say his act is healthy for tennis? What’s next, a regular podcast in the attention-hogging spirit of Draymond Green? “The media loves to write that I’m bad for the sport,” he said as he crashed the genteel gala. “But I’m clearly not.”
Those of a certain age, who equate Tik Tok with the passage of time, would argue that point as furiously as he does. Closer to the bitter truth, a glorious era is in a gradual process of fading away — a generation ruled by Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, with 86 Grand Slam titles between them — and the sight of Kyrgios disintegrating under pressure was a reminder of a grim hangover ahead. We’d better savor the G.O.A.T. age while it’s still with us, as it might not be around much longer. This event will be remembered, quite possibly, as an inflection point in tennis history. How many more times will we see these greats? And if we do, what calamities await them?
Only Djokovic survived with a championship, still wily enough at 35 to let an Australian ticking bomb detonate after his thundering serve seemed capable of anything in London town — saving Boris Johnson, restoring hair on Prince William’s pate and stalling the Serb’s career narrative. But after notching his 21st major title and seventh Wimbledon crown, Djokovic could not leave well enough alone. He foolishly refused to back down from his ongoing refusal to be vaccinated for COVID-19, which makes it difficult to see anything but agony in his future. If he isn’t allowed to enter America for the U.S. Open next month, and if the government Down Under holds firm and again bans him from the Australian Open next January, he might cost himself his publicly coveted record for most career Slams. At what point does preserving one’s body as a temple come with tragically diminishing returns?
“I’m not vaccinated,” Djokovic said after his four-set victory at the All England Club, “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 United States or exemption. I don't think exemption is realistically possible.”
When even a championship is clouded, it sinks true aficionados into a wistful mode. Earlier, Nadal succumbed to an abdominal muscle tear, the latest case of health obstructing his endearing supremacy, forcing him to opt out of a semifinal against Kyrgios following a brave victory in which he ignored his father’s pleas to stop playing. Nadal remains one win ahead of Djokovic in the all-time race — 22 to 21, rather astonishingly — but what should be a magnificent fight to the finish instead resembles an attrition slog. Will Nadal, 36, be halted by an abrupt early retirement, limited as he already is by chronic pain in his left foot? Or will he take advantage of Djokovic’s upcoming absences to win the U.S. and Australian Opens? It would silence those who say he shouldn’t be the G.O.A.T. when 14 of his Slams were won on Paris clay.
Claiming he isn’t fazed by the all-time record — don’t believe him — or a missed shot at a calendar year Grand Slam, Nadal says he just wants to live a normal life. “As always, the most important thing is happiness more than any title, even if everybody knows how much effort I put to be here,” he said. “Never thought about the calendar slam. I thought about my daily happiness.” In that vein, he sounds much like Federer, who was seen not in competition garb but in a dapper suit, on hand for the 100th anniversary of Centre Court.
“This court has given me my biggest wins, my biggest losses,’’ he told the audience. “I hope I can come back one more time.”
He has been robbed by his birth certificate, stalled at 20 Slam victories in an era when Nadal and Djokovic were a few years younger. Sometimes, you wonder about the purpose of declaring a G.O.A.T. when all three are worthy of the title. This much is true: Federer and Nadal are the most beloved, and Djokovic is the grudgingly tolerated heel who still might end up with the biggest bundle.
In what seems eons ago, Williams lost in the first round to someone named Harmony Tan. Pushing 41 and ranked 407th in the world, she’s a mom who is en route to conquering the business world. There is nothing more to accomplish, her status as the greatest all-time women’s player cemented long ago, even if she remains one Slam short of tying Margaret Court’s record. All of which has been surpassed by her cultural magnitude. “Changing the game was not something I set out to do, but somehow, I did,” she said. The perfect bow-out? One last appearance on American soil, in New York.
At this point, Naomi Osaka was supposed to inherit Serena’s throne. But her 2018 breakthrough over Williams at the U.S. Open was a tease. Osaka since has lost her competitive edge, using “mental health’’ as a crutch as she pockets $50 million in annual endorsements and launches a media company with LeBron James. She is more likely to be the next Maria Sharapova than the next Serena.
Kyrgios, too, has cited mental health as an impediment to reaching his vast potential. He said he considered committing suicide three years ago. His nightly parties, including drugs and alcohol, always took precedence over practice. He has an Aug. 2 court date in Canberra, Australia, where he allegedly assaulted his former girlfriend last December. “I have a lot of thoughts, a lot of things I want to say, kind of my side about it,” he said of the accusation. “Obviously I’ve been advised by my lawyers that I’m unable to say anything at this time. I understand everyone wants to ask about it, but I can’t give you too much on that right now.” Before reaching the final, he was fined $10,000 for spitting in the direction of a fan and $4,000 for dropping an obscenity in a tempestuous win over Stefanos Tsitsipas that should have been held inside a steel cage.
There was hope that reaching the Wimbledon might kick him in the ass, at last. “Honestly, as a tennis fan, I’m glad that he’s in the finals because he’s got so much talent,” Djokovic said before the match. “Everyone was praising him when he came on the tour, expecting great things from him. Of course, then we know what was happening throughout many years with him mentally, emotionally. On and off the court, a lot of different things were distracting him, and he was not being able to get this consistency. For the quality player that he is, this is where he needs to be and deserves to be.”
Then, predictably, Kyrgios lost his way when the championship was within his grasp. “He knew on this stage, when Nick starts to talk, he’s going to be vulnerable. That happened,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, per the Associated Press.
The Tik Tok crowd will feed off his antics nonetheless, including shots between his legs and underarmed serves. You’d like to think Kyrgios will graduate from adolescence and heed the lessons of Djokovic. “He was just so composed,” he said of the victor. “In big moments, it just felt like he was never rattled. I feel like that’s his greatest strength: He never looks rattled. He just looks completely within himself the whole time. Didn’t look like he was playing overaggressive, even though it felt like he was playing big.”
Something is wrong when a player serves 30 aces in a Wimbledon final and fades off as an afterthought. Djokovic tried to lift Kyrgios’ spirits during the trophy ceremony. “Everything is starting to come together for you,” he said. “It’s tough to find consolation words after a tough loss like this, but you showed why you deserve to be one of the best players in the world, particularly on this surface. I really respect you a lot.”
Letting the words sink in, Nick the Prick sounded like an adult for a change. “He is a bit of a God,” he said of Djokovic. “I am not going to lie.”
Consider that a starting point for him and the rest of us. For now, it’s a fine idea to appreciate what’s left of the G.O.A.T. era. “That's the circle of life, you know," Nadal said. “Time happens, and the clock never stops. This kind of stuff we need to get used to.”
If it sounds like a hint, a collective farewell looms.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.