PREVIEW | King Djokovic meets snarling Kyrgios: Enthralled tennis world anticipates fireworks in Wimbledon final

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Novak Djokovic (Getty Images)
Novak Djokovic (Getty Images)

And so it will be Novak Djokovic. It had to be Djokovic. The last man standing of the celestial three in tennis's pantheon. Not Zeus. Not Poseidon. Not Hades. But Federer. Nadal.

And now, Djokovic, the closest thing to the underworld 'dog' needed for this particular Wimbledon men's final. Enter the snarling, troubled son of an Australian Greek and a Malaysian princess, Nick Kyrgios.

"No matter how many Grand Slams he [Djokovic] wins, he will never be the greatest for me... I'm sorry, but if you can't beat me, you're not the greatest of all time," said Kyrgios (well, who else!) in 2019.

Sunday's Gentleman's Singles final will be the third meeting between the two players. Going in, Kyrgios leads the head-to-head 2-0, beating him twice in straight sets, first at Acapulco (7-6, 7-5), then Indian Wells (6-4, 7-6), both on hard courts, both in 2017. This will be their first encounter over five sets.

The Saffa connection, twice-removed in Johannesburg-born Brit Cameron Norrie was just not going to cut it for this final. Not during a fortnight of load-shedded Wimbledon for South Africans anyway. And deep down, the Brits know it too: if that Nick Kyrgios is to win a Grand Slam, in the Queen's country at that, only defeat of one of the three kings will do. The same goes for all the other young pretenders.

We were denied the first in a lip-smacking reckoning with Rafael Nadal in the semi-final after he withdrew from the tournament on Thursday with an abdominal injury. The Spaniard simply will not succumb, cannot, and will probably be dragged off a court before he bangs the gong himself. No. There's only one way past Rafa, you must beat him. By hook, crook or a Hail Mary. Grigor Dimitrov learnt this in a five-set baptism at the Australian Open semi-final against Nadal in 2017. Five years later, with Nadal pushing 37, American Taylor Fritz, in perplexed disbelief, found it to be just so in Wednesday's quarter-final. The old boys aren't going to relinquish this golden age so easily.

Some may say Nadal should have done the honourable thing and retired during the match against Fritz. The man was in agony. His family begged and pleaded from the player's box. No. Beat him, you must. Until then, you shall not pass! He will not go gentle into that good night. There are no favours here. Perhaps a small one for Kyrgios, who gained a rest day on Friday while Djokovic ran his paces to the final against Norrie, beating him 2-6 6-3 6-2 6-4.

Some would say it is fitting that Kyrgios and Nadal will not meet at this year's Wimbledon. Not yet. Tennis is not ready for this Rubicon. We may never be ready to see the big three go. Nadal, an ageing warrior, wounded, indefatigable, but with the pin waiting to drop. It cannot come against Kyrgios. Not at the hands of the man who mocks every Mallorcan-bred sinew stretched in 22 Grand Slams of glory. The better man doesn't always win.

And so Nadal remains unbeaten in Grand Slams this year, albeit undone by ever-present injury, with the Australian and French Open in with the other 20 slams in the bag. As the Serb, a Wimbledon title will smooth a rocky year.

He has been biding his time in the shadows of an Australian vaccine exile (another awaits at the US Open), a quarter-final defeat to Nadal at Roland Garros, and at Wimbledon, has been quietly going about his business as the Kyrgios storm rumbled along this English summer. This is the time to strike for Djokovic.

READ | Djokovic vows 'fireworks' in Wimbledon final against Kyrgios

The top-seed will be licking his vegan chops for this deliciously poised final against Kyrgios. But it won't be easy if the Aussie decides to play. We all know that the Serbian has got the mongrel and the steel glint in the eye to go toe to toe with the likes of tempestuous Kyrgios. And the credentials of 20 Grand Slam titles.

Kyrgios is competing in his first Grand Slam final. Ever. Certainly, the battle between the game's greatest returner and a devil of a serve off Kyrgios' racquet awaits. As Djokovic said, after Friday's semi-final, there will be fireworks.

What remains to be seen is how the story unfolds on Sunday. Which way will the Wimbledon gallery swing before they give way to the frenzy that comes with smelling blood?

The defending champion has had to stomach a mean-spirited crowd many a time, being a divisive character himself. He had to do so again with the poms against Norrie on Friday.

Can the volatile Kyrgios stand up to the occasion, steeped in a century of history, with his brute force, magnificent, at times sensitive touch and join the ranks? Or will he descend into what he knows best and do his worst?

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