Too good to fast-forward

They're getting down to the end of the big tennis tournament at Wimbledon, just outside of London. Tomorrow (overnight tonight, our time) Ons Jabeur of Tunisia will play Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan (sort of, more on that later) for the women's singles title. A day later, the defending men's singles champ and heavy favorite from the start, Novak Djokovic of Serbia, will take on the wild and fierce Australian upstart, Nick Kyrgios, for this year's men's championship.

Some people are going to put a big asterisk on the 2022 tournament, for several reasons. The biggest is that the British decided to ban Russian players in light of the invasion of Ukraine. This meant, for example, no Daniil Medvedev or Andrey Rublev in the men's draw, and no Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka on the women's side. Injuries eliminated both Roger Federer (who may not play seriously again, his knees are so old) and Sascha Zverev. And then at the last minute, Covid took out Marin Cilic and Mario Berettini. All of which left the door open for some not-quite-superstars, like a big group of American men, to make a run for it.

Now, my strategy for watching this year's Wimbledon was pretty straightforward. I would record every match I could, but skip the dull ones and watch only the interesting ones. But as it turned out, there were way more interesting matches than dull, and I quickly found myself two days behind. I never really caught up.

Among the great moments I watched on tape delay were a killer throwdown between Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece; a Chilean kid, Cristian Garin, coming from far, far behind to shock the Australian Alex De Minaur; super-lanky American John Isner dashing the hopes of hometown favorite Andy Murray; a string of solid victories by the American Patrick Tiafoe; and Janik Sinner, a red-headed Italian, taking the first two sets and putting a genuine scare into the Djokovic camp.

I was also watching as the American phenom Coco Gauff got her ticket home punched by her fellow Yankee, Amanda Anasimova; and as what's left of Serena Williams was dispatched in the first round by little Harmony Tan of France. The heavy favorite to take it all in the women's game, Iga Swiatek of Poland, hadn't lost a match since February, but she looked out of sync on the grass court, and she, too, fell to a French woman, Alize Cornet. With Ashleigh Barty of Australia retired from tennis, the distaff half has been a wide-open field.

In addition to watching all the great play, I stayed tuned for most of the 100th anniversary ceremony they held the other day. Most of the living Wimbledon singles champions showed up to be honored and pay their respects to the hallowed "English Garden," but even there an asterisk had to be applied. Nine-time champ Martina Navratilova, who was on site as a commentator for the Tennis Channel, had to bow out due to Covid. (Serena Williams, meanwhile, couldn't be bothered to show up.)

Rafael Nadal was there, and he won five matches despite essentially playing on one leg due to a chronic foot condition. But when you favor a wounded part of your body, you tend to hurt another, and he tore an abdominal muscle serving in the quarterfinals against the American Taylor Fritz (whom I keep wanting to call Taylor Swift, sorry). Rafa finished out the match and took the win, thank you, but announced that he was out for the rest of the event. Which meant that Kyrgios skipped the semi-final and went right to this weekend's final. Another asterisk, I guess. I think he should have had to play Fritz, who didn't exactly make it easy for Nadal.

But no matter. It's been as fun to watch as any Wimbledon in the last decade, and the championship matches should be entertaining.

The whole drama with Russia is hanging over the women's final. Rybakina is from Moscow, but four or five years ago she declared herself a Kazakhstani player. It was about money, not politics. In Kazakhstan, tennis players get more financial support than they do from Putie. And so she's not a Russian sneaking into Wimbledon through a side door, and if she wins, it won't really vindicate the Evil Empire-Wannabe, as much as Moscow will crow about it.

Her opponent, Jabeur, is a hoot. You don't see too many Arab women on the pro tennis circuit, and this one is a real firecracker. Strong, smart, and above all, charismatic. A role model in Tunisia for women, and for athletes of whatever gender, she's grounded, and funny, and wears her heart on her sleeve. She'll have the English crowd behind her, and the only thing between her and the beautiful trophy seems to be the potential to crack under the extreme pressure. Jabeur's to root for.

On the men's side, I'm okay with either guy prevailing. Coming into this Wimbledon, I didn't like Kyrgios, who breaks tennis' etiquette rules with regularity (and pays the resulting fines). But given how well he's played in the tournament, he's gotten a lot of television interview time, and in those conversations he comes across as a much better guy than his antics betray. He's been quite open about his struggles with mental illness, and he reportedly does good things for charitable causes off the court. I am more willing now than I was before to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that his better angels prevail on Sunday.

Djokovic, anti-vaxxer, dastardly robot of tennis domination, has not been my favorite guy, either. But he's one of the greatest of all time, and when he makes mistakes he owns up to them. This would be his 21st major tournament title, and it would be well-deserved. It will be interesting to see if the Wimbledon crowd gets behind him. On the one hand, they love the entertainment that Big Nick provides, but on the other, they love their traditions, and Novak is certainly a symbol of those. He's won this thing six times, including the last three in a row.