For a tennis Grand Slam, and one of the most prestigious of sports events in the yearly calendar, Wimbledon 2022 would have to be characterized as the one with so many twists and turns, and unexpected surprises. Surprises, which truth be told, were more often than not, disappointing ones – and brought a bittersweet note to the two week proceedings. While this Wimbledon won’t have to be noted with an asterisk – for many Wimbledon fans, and those who eagerly follow the sport, it does feel that way.
Before the first ball was even tossed, there came the news that Russian tennis players would be banned from the tournament this year, a UK response to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. This immediately divided a number of observers, who pointed out that it was unfair to ‘punish’ athletes; while others lauded the move for the signal it sent to tennis federations of countries committing acts of aggression. Either way, the die was cast, and for the Men’s Draw, potentially top-seeded players such as Medvedev and Rublev would be on the sidelines. And on the second day, right before he was to take to the court, last year’s Finalist, Italian Matteo Berrettini had to withdraw after testing positive for COVID.
If at the start of the tournament, you’d have predicted that the Women’s Final would be contested by Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan and Ons Jabeur who hails from Tunisia; only Jabeur’s name would have brought some glimmer of real recognition. Rybakina even lists Moscow as her hometown, so as she progressed through the early rounds, some detractors would say her allegiance to Kazakhstan was more a ploy to fly under the radar of the Russia ban.
As it was, the Saturday Ladies’ Final did provide thrilling tennis, even if the names of the players underwhelmed most of the global audience. A 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 winner, Rybakina’s killer serve came back in the second set, and helped her keep Jabeur at bay. Ranked #23 at the start of Wimbledon, Elena is the second highest seed to raise the trophy ever since the WTA rankings came into play. It’s only Venus Williams, ranked 31st back in 2007, who has taken it all home from an outside the Top 20 seeds. And so now, Rybakina has the bragging rights for bringing the first tennis slam to her adopted nation of Kazakhstan.
While it may not match the fairy tale story that Britain’s own unseeded Emma Radacanu owned in the 2021 US Open, I’ll venture to say that Elena may not suffer the same fate as Emma – who’s been such a disappointment ever since the US Open. In fact, if you’re looking for consistency in Emma’s post-US Open career, there’s more in her hiring and firing of coaches than there is in her tennis game. Sadly, that’s the bitter truth.
Over in the Men’s Draw, the overriding storyline as the tournament started was Novak Djokovic going for his 21st Slam win, with Rafa Nadal and his 22 Slam titles standing in the way. Federer, who’s been stuck at 20 for some years now, was making noises about playing next year, but had passed on this year. After a scare from Italian youngster Jannik Sinner in the Quarters – Novak had to come back from two sets down; it was Novak dispatching hometown favorite Cameron Norrie in the Semi’s, and moving to yet another Slam Final.
On the other half of the draw, the Quarters saw Rafa Nadal eking our a grim five set win over American Taylor Fritz, despite the abdominal injury that Rafa had aggravated. Unfortunately, the injury was such that he had to withdraw from the Semi’s and thus, give a free pass to Australian Nick Kyrgios to the Finals and Novak. Some were wishing that Rafa had let Taylor advance so we didn’t have the peculiar situation of a walkover Semi-Final. Valiant win by Rafa, but such a shame that he had to withdraw after that match.
As it stands then, for many fans, the Finals loomed as a ‘Who Do We Dislike Less’ scenario. Fans of Roger and Rafa would be actively supporting Nick to keep Novak from #21. Novak has never been as popular as either Roger or Rafa, his anti-vaccination stance not helping him any. I don’t doubt his tennis skills, or his fortitude in never giving up; but I can also understand why he hasn’t endeared himself to a global audience.
Kyrgios has an over abundance of tennis talent, but has often been his own worse enemy. He seems to go out of his way to be brash, a bully, uncouth, and controversial. Their Doubles win (with Kokkinakis) in this years Australian Open had audiences divided. Some would call Kyrgios’ antics a disgrace to tennis and the history of the game; and yet, for a particular demographic, he was embraced by the partisan Australian crowd – and made tennis popular for the younger audience, who loved his Bad Boy image.
Heavily favored to annex his 21st Slam title, Djokovic lost the first set 4-6; and the question was for how long could Kyrgios maintain the high level of his initial play. Settling into longer rallies in the second set, Novak soon provided the answer and evened the number of sets, taking it 6-3. Then it was 6-4 to Novak and he was knocking on the door of that 21st Slam and 7th Wimbledon title.
The inevitable win was typical Novak. You’ll remember the spectacular winners of Kyrgios, but with steadier, sustained brilliance, you’ll look up to the scoreboard and find that Novak is ahead, and taking the match without looking back.
It’s the kind of Wimbledon win that Novak has carved as a template to his career. Unfazed by first set losses, he just chips away at the confidence of his opponent and wears them down over the length of the match. The big surprise this year would be our Ladies’ champion – the relatively unsung Elena.