Djokovic's duel with destiny
It has been a curious Wimbledon thus far. Much of it has been predictable: the last-minute withdrawal of Nick Kyrgios; the disappointing results of Australians- no women in the second round, only one male through to the third round and no further, the unimpeded progress of the top seeds and the rain.
Yet for what is often described as the grandest of the Grand Slams, the tennis thus far- except for the night and day ‘Battle of the toilet break’ match between Andy Murray and Stefanos Tsitsipas, has not generated the excitement that we might have expected.
Rather it has been off court news and events, attempts to disrupt the court, and ‘down the road’ activities that have taken our attention more than we realise.
The regal return of Roger Federer to Centre Court to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first title in 2023 had more than a whiff of a coronation about it, especially with the Princess of Wales looking adoringly on.
News that 2021 Women’s Champion, Ashleigh Barty, had given birth to her first child, Hayden, was also a reminder of triumphs past. The off-court love match of Tsitsipas and Paula Badosa also generated much media attention.
The Princess of Wales also took time to visit an outside court to watch British wildcard Katie Boulter play Australia’s Daria Saville. The match was interrupted by ‘Stop Oil Now’ protesters, the same activists that had disrupted play on the first day of the Lord’s Ashes cricket test between old rivals England and Australia.
The urgency of the pitch invaders’ demand that the world immediately cease using fossil fuel resources was thrown into perspective with statistics showing that, despite a drive to develop renewable energy, 82% of the world’s energy use last year was generated from coal and oil. The idea that the world’s energy switch can be instantly turned to ‘renewable’ remains a chimera.
Little did we know that their protest would be overshadowed by a storm far greater than the environmental apocalypse they seek to avoid. The controversial stumping of England’s wicketkeeper, Johnny Bairstow, as he and cavalier English captain Ben Stokes, took England tantalisingly close to an improbable victory will be discussed for many years. The response of the Australian commentariat was, predictably, less than sympathetic. It seems all is fair in “love, war and the Ashes.” The furore overshadowed more of the eccentric moments that cricket seems to deliver, especially when a bowler called Tongue was delivering to a batter called Head!
Any residual joie de vivre of the French Open evaporated following the fatal police shooting of a teenager in Paris. It was France’s ‘African and Arab Lives Matter’ moment, with the tragedy igniting violent nationwide protests and exposing cultural divides and suspicions about the integrity of French policing every bit as bitter as those in America.
Alongside existential questions of the world’s environmental future and repairing deep seated racial conflicts, the world finds ways to be affected by the absurd:
-it is just me or was the ill-fated Titan submersible expedition to view the wreck of the Titanic an exercise in indefensible vanity and hubris?;
-social media titans Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg announce plans to take to the ring to slog it out. Away from this puerile fantasy, they are now locked in corporate conflict as Zuckerberg seeks to use his social media platform, Threads, to destroy Zuckerberg’s Twitter. If they could tear each other and their pernicious companies to shreds the world would be the beneficiary;
-on-line technology was needed for the 4,000,000 ‘hits’ of Australians as they sought to obtain tickets to forthcoming Taylor Swift concerts- one suspects in secular Australia there would be less interest in the second coming. Let’s not forget that until 2022 Wimbledon did not play any matches on its middle Sunday;
-the Vietnamese government has banned showing of the forthcoming 'Barbie' movie because a scene depicts use of a map that, in their opinion, indicates excessive Chinese sovereignty of the South China Sea. One suspects that this political faux pas will not be the lasting message of the movie. There has been no greater clash between red and pink since Qantas staff adopted their new uniform.
At Wimbledon there was also a touch of absurdity in seeing five-time former champion Venus Willians stepping onto the court at the tender age of 43. Knowing when to retire gracefully is an art form.
So, the second week is about to commence. For the first time in many a Grand Slam, there is a high survival rate of the seeds.
In the Men’s draw, Seeds 1,2,3,5,6 7 & 8 have survived to the Round of 16. In the Women’s draw, there is some Shakespearean frailty, but Seeds 1,2,3,4,6 & 9 will compete for a place in the quarter-finals.
The focus of the second week will be on Novak Djokovic’s duel with destiny. His next match is against Polish player Hubert Hurkacz, who will always be remembered for ending Roger Federer’s Wimbledon love affair by defeating him in the 2021 quarter-finals. Can Hurkacz cruel Djokovic’s Grand Slam ambitions? It is unlikely, given Hubert has not managed to beat Djokovic in any of their five matches.
If Djokovic wins an eight Wimbledon title, he will have a second opportunity to complete the Grand Slam. The Grand Slam is rare glory indeed: only two men and three women- Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf have managed the improbable feat.
Djokovic had his first chance in 2021 when Medvedev thwarted him in the US Open final.
Australians have done well in the Grand Slam stakes.
Outside of Laver’s two Grand Slams, Jack Crawford won the first three titles of 1933 , before losing US final to Fred Perry in five sets after being ahead two sets to one. Lew Hoad had his chance in 1956: he won the first three titles, beating Ken Rosewall in Australia, Sweden's Sven Davidson in Paris, Rosewall again in Wimbledon, before Rosewall denied Hoad in New York in four sets.
So, who is to claim the most prized trophies in tennis?
Can anyone derail Djokovic? For mine, it can only be Tsitsipas if he harnesses all his skills for a magical three hours! First, Tsitsipas must overcome the fearless free flowing stroke play of unseeded American Chris Eubanks whose height- 2.01 metres-is imposing on a grass court.
In the Women’s draw, Ukrainian wildcard, Elina Svitolina, is the sentimental favourite. Representing a beleaguered country, the wife of popular player Gaels Monfils, she is seeking to emulate Evonne Cawley by winning Wimbledon after having had a child; however, if she defeats the tenacious Victoria Azarenka, top seed Swiatek awaits her in a quarter-final.
Swiatek is a complete player on clay and hard courts. Wimbledon champions, however, must have a mastery of the grass surface. Rybakina’s and Sabalenka’s games seem better suited to the manicured lawns on SW 19. Their anticipated semi-final -a rematch of the Australian Open final- should be splendid as it appears Rybakina has recovered from recent gastric and muscular upsets.
So, let the tennis Gods do their best. Should Djokovic prevail he will be entitled to knock on the pantheon’s door and sit alongside Margaret Court, th grandest of all grand slam winners and winner of the Grand Slam in 1970.