For a Wimbledon that threatened to go completely off-script, right until the final weekend, the 2022 edition came to an expected conclusion. The men’s favourite, Novak Djokovic, won his seventh title in London and a surprise, but a first-time Grand Slam winner—Elena Rybakina—claimed the women’s crown.
Ahead of this year’s Wimbledon, the chatter was about the Championships banning players from Russia and Belarus because of the war on Ukraine. The All England Club stated that it was “unwilling to accept success or participation at Wimbledon being used to benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime.” It meant World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and World No. 8 Andrey Rublev were missing from the men’s draw, while World No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka and two-time former major champion Victoria Azarenka couldn’t enter the women’s field. With the ATP and the WTA stripping the tournament of ranking points over the ban, many feared it would to turn into a glorified exhibition event.
Within the first two days of the tournament, former US Open champion Marin Cilic and 2021 Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini pulled out after testing positive for Covid-19. Serena Williams’ much-anticipated return, after a year-long absence due to injury, lasted just one match. Rafael Nadal, who was chasing a calendar Grand Slam after winning the first two majors of the season, withdrew ahead of the semi-finals with an abdominal injury, giving the sport’s enfant terribleNick Kyrgios a free pass into his first major final. Amidst all the chaos, the composure of Djokovic and Rybakina saw them through.
Kazakhstan’s first champion, via Russia
The irony of the Moscow-born and bred Rybakina winning the Wimbledon trophy, in the centenary year of Centre Court, is too delicious a narrative. Ranked 23 in the world, Rybakina was not even an outside favourite ahead of the tournament. She had suffered a thigh injury ahead of this year’s Australian Open, and had a tough time returning to the field after contracting Covid-19 in February. One win, from three matches, on grass was all she had, in the run up to Wimbledon.
But Rybakina, who has represented Kazakhstan since 2018, quickly found her groove on grass. Her big serve was the key as she tore through the draw, scoring impressive wins over 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu (second round) and 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep (semi-final) to reach her first Grand Slam final.
In Saturday’s final, she took on Ons Jabeur from Tunisia, and history was waiting to be made no matter who won. For the first time in the Open Era, two first-time finalists were taking on each other in a Wimbledon final. They were also the first from their respective countries to reach a singles Grand Slam final. And while the popular and entertaining Jabeur, who branded herself the ‘Minister of Happiness’, charged out of the blocks to take the first set, Rybakina was just warming up for the long battle ahead.
Jabeur had bewitched the crowd, and her opponent, with delicate drops, wicked backhand slices and off-pace groundstrokes in the opening set. But Rykabina started reading and anticipating the patterns, and used her flat, hard groundstrokes to get the better of the baseline exchanges. She started using her serve as a weapon to keep her rival on the backfoot. The four aces in the final took her season tally to a tour-leading 253 aces. In a remarkably poised performance, Rybakina converted four of the six break points she earned, while saving nine of the 11 she faced.
After closing out the match in an hour and 48 minutes, the 23-year-old celebrated her title win with an understated fist pump. Nothing else. Perhaps stunned, she barely broke into a smile as she posed with the Venus Rosewater dish. She finally broke down during the post-match press conference, when asked about how her parents would react to her win. “They’d be super proud,” she said while tearing up, “You wanted to see emotion, huh?”
As stunning as Rybakina’s run had been, the overriding intrigue seemed to be about her nationality. She was born in Russia, and still has a house there. But Rybakina switched allegiances five years ago, when Kazakhstan decided to invest in her career. She has represented Kazakhstan at the Olympics and in team competitions. And yet, during Wimbledon she was asked if she felt like a ‘Russian at heart.’
“I didn’t choose where I was born,” she said after the final. “People believed in me. Kazakhstan supported me so much. Even today, I heard so much support. I saw the flags, so I don’t know how to answer these questions.” No matter which country claims her success, it was Rybakina’s talent, hard work and nerve that had got her to the summit.
Djokovic back on track
“If I can say, it was a s**t year, a tough year,” Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion, put it succinctly on Sunday. After a dream 2021, when Djokovic won the first three majors of the season, and came up short by just one match in his quest for the calendar Grand Slam, 2022 has so far been a season of discontent. Due to his vaccination status, Djokovic was deported from Australia ahead of the Australian Open. An undercooked Djokovic was booed during his quarter-final against Nadal at the French Open, and seemed to leave Paris in a confused daze.
“This was a huge thing what happened to him. For some people, they don't recover,” added Ivanisevic. “It's really for me heroic because it was not easy to digest all the thing and come back to play tennis. Then you're thinking, ‘Why you have to play tennis?’”
But Wimbledon, the centre of his tennis universe while growing up in a war-torn Serbia, proved to be a sanctuary for Djokovic yet again. Though there had been a few shaky moments during the fortnight—including having to rally from two sets down against young gun Jannik Sinner in the quarter-finals—the Serb seemed unbreakable in the final.
For all his flaws, and constant muttering during the final, the mercurial Kyrgios gave one of the best performances of his career. The Australian fired 30 aces, had 73 per cent of his first serves in and brought his explosive power and versatility to the court. But he couldn’t find a way past Djokovic, who gave a masterclass in returning.
“It's weird, I felt like he didn't do anything amazing today,” said Kyrgios, who had a 2-0 (four sets to love) lead over Djokovic in their head-to-head before Sunday. “I feel like he's just a great returner. Didn't look like he was playing over-aggressive, even though it felt like he was playing big. But he was just so composed. That's what I was just thinking to myself. In big moments, it just felt like he was never rattled.”
Djokovic’s legendary match toughness shone through in two possibly game-changing passages, which came in the second and third sets. Serving for the second set at 5-3, Djokovic went down 0-40 but somehow found the right shots and the right moment—including an incredibly gutsy drop shot to save a fourth break point—to get through. In the ninth game of the third set, Kyrgios led 40-0 on his serve, but Djokovic returned them all and won five points in a row to steal the break. The predicted Kyrgios meltdown never came, but Djokovic, determined to put his Grand Slam career back on track, was rock-solid through his 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3) win in three hours. The stakes, the noise, the past few months, the mouthy rival—all of it seemed to fade away as Djokovic, cap on, head down, rose to meet the moment.
It was his fourth successive Wimbledon title and 21st Grand Slam overall—which puts him ahead Roger Federer’s 20, and one behind Nadal’s record tally of 22. At a major known for its traditions, Djokovic carried out one of his post-win rituals—of plucking and eating a few blades of grass. Moments before, the 35-year-old, who has developed a reputation as a strongman, had cried into the towel for possibly the first time on winning a major title.
A polarising figure, Djokovic may not be everybody’s favourite champion, but he is still one heck of a tennis player. Or as Kyrgios, who shares a love-hate relationship with the Serb, described, “He’s a bit of a god.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.