Carlos Alcaraz's thundering Wimbledon win makes him the new rage of men's tennis
Some three weeks back, Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic were involved in an epic battle in the semi-final of the French Open. The 20-year-old Spanish pretender and the 36-year-old Serb virtuoso were involved in a no-holds-barred, bruising showdown on the red clay of Roland Garros, the younger man’s preferred surface, splitting the first two sets.
Then, Alcaraz imploded. The tightness in the mind spread to his limbs and his body, and as he started to cramp up, Djokovic stepped up several gears to sweep to a commanding victory. When he brushed aside Casper Ruud in the final a couple of days later to lay his hands on a men’s record 23rd Grand Slam crown, the big question was who would stop the Serb on the green grass of Wimbledon, where he was sitting on a 28-match winning streak going into this year’s competition.
Djokovic had already won the Australian Open at the start of the year, the French triumph taking him halfway to a calendar slam last achieved by a man in 1969 when ‘Rocket’ Rod Laver swept all four Grand Slam crowns. That he had conquered the clay for a third time in Paris was of particular significance, because it made Djokovic the only man to win all three slams at least thrice.
A record-equalling eighth Wimbledon title seemed only a formality, particularly given that Alcaraz, his fiercest challenger, had only three tournament appearances on grass before last fortnight.
Sport, however, does not play out on paper. As both men scythed through the draw to take their appointed places in the final, logic pointed to world No 2 Djokovic, but from Alcaraz’s perspective, the signs were promising. With his No 1 ranking on the line, the heir apparent to the magnificent Rafael Nadal wouldn’t just be making up the numbers in the final. Surely, there would be no repeat of Roland Garros 2023?
For a set on Sunday, it appeared as if a man resembling Alcaraz in every aspect except the actual play had strayed on to Centre Court, where Djokovic hadn’t lost in ten years. The gentleman who last conquered him on that hallowed turf, Andy Murray, watched impassively from the stands as Djokovic took Alcaraz apart, racing through the first set 6-1. Here we go, one thought.
The one man who didn’t think that was Alcaraz. He didn’t want to embarrass himself, he didn’t want to let down an emotional, split crowd that had turned up expected wholesome entertainment. He roused himself out of his slumber, and despite being one point away from going down two sets to love, clinched a tie-break to level the match at a set apiece. Game on, most definitely, as cheeky drop shots and monster forehands seemed to wear down the older man, his legs wobbly even as his mind remained sharp.
Fortunes swung to and fro over the next sets, pushing the final to a decider. The two gladiators had slugged it out for more than four hours, Djokovic’s discovery of a second wind helping him stay in touch with the youthful exuberance of Alcaraz. The final set was huge for men’s tennis – on grass, where Djokovic has been well nigh invincible, if Alcaraz could somehow pull it off, the ramifications would be massive. Immense. Unquantifiable.
Just to put things in perspective, one has to go back to 2002 to find a Wimbledon men’s singles champion not answering to the name of Roger Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray. No one knew it at the time, but Australian Lleyton Hewitt’s demolition of David Nalbandian would spark a sequence of 20 years when no one outside of this aforementioned quartet would lay their hands on this title. In a nice symmetry, at 20, Alcaraz was therefore in the privileged position of snapping that streak. Quite a weight to carry on 20-year-old shoulders, however broad and sturdy they might have been.
The first-set bloodbath was a distant memory by the time the two men returned to the court to rapturous applause to kick off the decider. This was it, all or nothing. Would Djokovic win a 24th Grand Slam title to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record? Or would Alcaraz slot in behind Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg as the third youngest men’s champion ever at the All-England Club? Who was fresher, fitter, hungrier, more driven, less nervy?
Alcaraz fired the first salvo with an early break, then games went with serve until the Spaniard stepped up at 5-4 to serve for The Championships. The pressure was humongous, the stadium awash in sunshine but holding its collective breath. The Prince and Princess of Wales were in attendance, as was King Felipe of Spain. Hollywood royalty was represented by, among others, Brad Pitt and Daniel Craig; a host of former champions watched on enthralled, among them John McEnroe and Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Stefan Edberg.
Would Alcaraz crack? Would he be weighed down by the prospect of being four points away from becoming the Wimbledon champion, for the first time, at 20 years of age? Would Djokovic, the master of the mind, jump in and seize the opportunity? Oh, the possibilities…
Alcaraz is still a kid, occasionally prone to grandstanding. So he attempted a cheeky drop off the first point, an effort that landed in the net and gave Djokovic a sniff of a chance. Most others would have returned to the conservative but, as coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, himself a former world No 1, buried his head in his hands in the Players’ Box, Alcaraz produced another drop.
This fell over but stayed in the air for an eternity, allowing the fleet-footed Djokovic to get to the ball and nurdle it over the net. Alcaraz nonchalantly responded with a superb nerveless lob that looped over his opponent’s head and dipped and dropped well inside the baseline. What temerity! What poise and assurance! What confidence!
Seconds later, Alcaraz produced a stunning stretch volley off a screaming Djokovic pass, and fittingly sealed the deal with an unreturnable forehand, a booming weapon that resounded around the court like the crack of lightning. History had been rewritten, a new Spaniard was the rage of the men’s game, adding the Wimbledon crown to the US Open title he had clinched last September.
A gracious Djokovic later used the word ‘amazing’ multiple times to describe Alcaraz, and his ability to adapt to an unfamiliar surface. And to think that this is just the beginning. Carlos Alcaraz isn’t going anywhere. Except into the record books, so long as he stays fit and motivated. Amazing, indeed.