It was a flourish of such audacity that even Center Court, a place where Novak Djokovic had never won a popularity contest, erupted in ecstasy. The tweener lob is an absurdly high shot that even some of the best players are hesitant to attempt, either for fear of embarrassment or getting hit in the groin. So when the Serb pulled it off successfully in just the fourth game, landing the ball inches from the baseline before winning the point with the most skillful volley, it was a reminder to Cameron Norrie of how far he still had to travel. .
Norrie has shown over the last 12 days that he is a wonderfully gifted player, whose first Masters title last October was no fluke. However, there is still a huge chasm between his level and the almost nonchalant brilliance Djokovic displays here. You know you’re in trouble when the six-time champion, who tends to avoid flashy, low-percentage shots if he can help it, lobs between his legs with unerring precision.
Everyone looked as if Norrie had won the point with an exquisite touch in the corner, only for Djokovic, quickly backing away, to return the ball over his head. His fist bump to the box told you everything about the degree of difficulty. So did John McEnroe’s reaction in the commentary booth. “He’s preparing for Nick Kyrgios,” he gushed. “He actually meant that shot.”
Djokovic wasn’t exaggerating when he promised a host of “fireworks” against Kyrgios on Sunday. It is his only hope of converting the Center Court crowd to his cause. Even as a true grass-court titan, who is right up there with Pete Sampras’ seven Wimbledon titles, a mark many considered unassailable at the time, he seems destined to always suffer from the fact that he is not Roger Federer. . Just as he had to pretend during the 2019 final that the incessant shouts of “Roger, Roger” were “Novak, Novak,” he grew increasingly irritated by the partisan shouting, especially when some tried to shout as he prepared to serve.
His reprimand towards them at the end, blowing a teasing kiss, sent an ominous message that Djokovic is never more dangerous than when he feels a sense of rejection. He may not have won a set against Kyrgios in their two matches against each other, but he made it clear here that he would be at his best destructive moment.
Part of what makes him one of the all-time greats is his ability to shift gears when needed. It is absurd that he has now reached the final in 32 of the 68 majors he has played. And yet, when Rishi Persad, the on-court interviewer, rattled off that stat at the end, Djokovic was in no mood to succumb to casual flattery. “I appreciate it,” he shrugged. “But the job is not done.”
Norrie understood that she had been given a lesson in punishment. He recognized Djokovic’s superior shot-taking and intensity of focus. So why, after breaking the top seed three times in the first set, couldn’t he do a better job of emulating him? The answer is that Djokovic is so ruthlessly precise and time-consuming that he forces even a player of Norrie’s athleticism into a state of impotent submission.
When Djokovic dropped two sets to Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals, he went to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, as if to remind himself of his alpha male status. It was reminiscent of the moment when Rory McIlroy’s former caddy, JP Fitzgerald, told him, during a particularly errant open round, “You’re Rory McIlroy, what the hell are you doing?” For the reigning champion, there was no need to repeat words of encouragement against Norrie. His only adjustment was to put on a cap to protect himself from the glare of the sun. From there, he simply took the life of the British number 1.
For Kyrgios, who admitted to suffering from insomnia and unusual extremes of anxiety upon realizing he had reached the final, it was a performance that made his blood run cold. The mere sight of that outrageous lob, sealing a point Djokovic had no right to win, threatened to haunt his nightmares before his most daunting day.