Among a sea of picnic blankets and with the scent of suncream heavy in the air, Wimbledon’s Henman Hill was abuzz with anticipation as tennis fans massed to watch the sport’s biggest anti-hero since John McEnroe contest the Wimbledon final.
Whatever else is being said about Nick Kyrgios, the Australian has invigorated this tournament, and men’s tennis generally, but his firecracker personality and willingness to court controversy have split opinion sharply among Wimbledon spectators over a tumultuous fortnight.
“Go Nick,” laughed Molly, a 24-year-old from the Sydney suburbs, as she waved an Australian flag the size of a handkerchief in one hand, and held a plastic Wimbledon-branded cup of Pimm’s in the other at the start of the final against Novak Djokovic.
“I know he doesn’t really fit the whole tennis scene, but he’s exciting to watch, he can beat anyone… and he’s Australian.”
That national qualification meant little to Jonathan, a 47-year-old Briton setting up camp with his two daughters, but still he agreed that the player who routinely turns up dressed more appropriately for a 3×3 game of hoops than a tennis match is good for the game.
“He brings edge after years of brilliant, but pretty sterile, tennis,” he said. “And he plays shots nobody else would dream of. Not just the underarm serves and the shots between his legs, but amazing winners. He’s definitely made tennis more exciting this year.”
Named after the tournament’s British nearly man – four-times losing semi-finalist Tim Henman – the bank of grass inside the All England Club known as Henman Hill is served by enormous TV screens showing Centre Court live, and has become a lightning rod for fans unable to access a precious Centre Court ticket.
They gathered early on Sunday, laying down blankets and rugs once the grounds opened at 11am.
By the time the final got going it was full to capacity — although the All England Club would not say, or estimate, what that capacity was, only mentioning “a number of factors (had been) taken into account”.
Fans in their thousands cowered under Wimbledon umbrellas, for once protecting against the sun rather than rain, and yet more supporters in the grounds on general access tickets queued to grab a small scrap of grass in front of the screen.
A party atmosphere unfurled as the mercury continued to rise, nudging 30 degrees celsius, and the crowd ebbed and swayed with the on-court emotion.
The majority of the hill seemed to root for the Australian, and when he won the first set a massive roar went up. But Djokovic punched back, and plenty of supporters cheered the Serb’s winning of the second set.
As the pressure built, and Kyrgios began to unravel in the heat — screaming at his box, shouting obscenities to himself — the crowd reflected on the drama.
“It isn’t great, but I guess you know what you are getting with Kyrgios and that’s what makes him so exciting and unpredictable,” said British tennis fan Marcus.
“But yeah, not good that he explodes like that… I don’t think it really seems to do him any good, either. It’s not like he got his game back together after those outbursts.”
In the end, an ice-cool Djokovic secured his seventh Wimbledon title, leaving Kyrgios, and the sun-kissed Henman Hill supporters, to dwell on what might have been.