After years of false starts, men’s tennis is finally becoming a generational war proper.
In a stunning comeback that rocked the All England Club’s center court, Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish superstar who has captained the sport in his short career, pulled off the near impossible, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final of Wimbledon. The turf the man widely recognized as the sport’s greatest ever had long been treated as his backyard turf.
Besides chasing down the Grand Slams, Djokovic aimed to annihilate the dreams of another upstart rookie to challenge his dominance of the game, which to date amounts to 23 Grand Slam titles. Alcaraz is the standard bearer for the next group of players who are set to move the sport beyond the Big Three era, an era that included Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic’s reign longer than many expected.
Alcaraz won last year’s US Open in dramatic acrobatic fashion, giving notice that men’s tennis would be touched by an extraordinary talent. This year, he withdrew from the Australian Open due to an injury and lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open. But the buzz around him and his future never waned.
“It’s great for the new generation to see me beat it and make them think they can do it,” Alcaraz said.
After being knocked down in the first set and simply struggling to avoid embarrassment, Al Karez rediscovered his unique combination of pace, power and touch and discovered the ins and outs of grass court tennis just in time.
He battled his way back into the match in an epic 85-minute second set as he was one point away from what was seen as an insurmountable two-set deficit.
He took control of the match midway through the third set, then took a swing in the fourth as Djokovic, the four-time Wimbledon champion and seven-time winner, rediscovered the movement that has long been the foundation of his success.
Djokovic is as dangerous a player as ever when facing defeat, but Alcaraz rose again to claim victory, 1-6, 7-6(6), 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, not only overpowering Djokovic’s skills and talents. Endless but also breaking spirits.
When the momentum swung one last time, as Alcaraz slammed a backhand down the line to break Djokovic early in the fifth set, the Serb with his steely mind smashed his racket on goal. A few points ago, he missed his chance to seize control, swinging a forehand float into the middle of the court and sending it into the net. Now, after only a few minutes, the thing that had seldom happened to him in recent years—a loss to a relative newcomer on the big stage, especially this one—was happening.
Last month, Djokovic, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, finally got the better of his longtime rivals, Nadal and Federer. But that loss cost him a chance at one of the few trophies he didn’t achieve – he became the first player since 1969 to achieve the Grand Slam in men’s singles, winning all four Grand Slams in one year. He was close to achieving this feat two years ago. This time, at 36, the age most champions retire to the broadcasting booth, he was eight games away.
It seemed very close, but in the final, Alcaraz showed why there was so much fuss about him for so long. Djokovic finished with his sexiest weapons – a silk volley, a high-speed shot, a fast serve and another forehand tear that Djokovic reached but couldn’t lift over the net.
The preacher fell to the ground and rolled on the grass with his hands to his face in disbelief. Djokovic hugged into the net, shook hands with the referee, picked up a loose ball from the grass and pointed it at the crowd before heading into the stands to hug his parents and coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Alcaraz said, “Beating Novak at his best, at this point, making history, being the guy to beat him after 10 years unbeaten on that court, is great for me.”
After receiving the Champion’s Trophy from Catherine, Princess of Wales, on a day that featured A-list celebrities like actors Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig, Emma Watson and Hugh Jackman and singer Ariana Grande, he flirted with King Philip VI. From Spain, who also witnessed the victory of the young Spanish player.
“Now that you’ve won, I hope you’ll come to more of my matches,” Alcaraz told King.
One of Alcaraz’s mentors, Nadal, the Spanish great who dethroned another Wimbledon icon, Federer, in 2008 wrote on social media that Alcaraz had brought “great joy” to Spanish tennis.
“A very strong hug, and have a hero moment!!!” wrote Nadal, who missed the tournament due to recent hip and abdominal surgery.
The loss created a rare moment for Djokovic, who admitted that on this day at least he lost to a better player.
“It’s hard to swallow,” Djokovic said of the loss. He then choked back with tears as he looked at his son, who was smiling at him from a bench in the stadium. He told his family, “Thank you for supporting me.” “I’ll give you a big hug and we can all love each other.”
Mats Wilander, a seven-time Grand Slam winner who is now one of the most respected voices in the sport, has put Djokovic’s chances of beating Alcaraz and winning four Grand Slam tournaments in 2023 at 90%.
“He’s got a lot of guns,” Wilander said. “He knows everything there is to know about the sport. He has brought it all down to science. The opponents are not ready for him.”
In the opening minutes of Sunday’s final, Wilander looked predictable. The most important men’s match on the tennis calendar looked like a contest between two players who walked onto center court under very different circumstances.
It was a typical Sunday in July for Djokovic. But Alcaraz was playing in his first Wimbledon final, and he put on that weight after the stress cramps he suffered during his semi-final clash with Djokovic at the French Open last month. It was the first major moment when Alcaraz, number one and world number one, failed to live up to the hype.
Sunday was different. But not at first.
From the opening moments, Djokovic pinned Alcaraz to the back corner with low slicing shots that made it impossible for Alcaraz to go on the attack. He smashed the service return, targeting the brown patches of dirt at Alcaraz’s feet and pushing him backwards.
Djokovic was poised before the match with half an hour to go but Alcaraz took a 2-0 lead in the second.
Alcaraz’s chance to save his first Wimbledon final came in a tiebreaker at the end of an epic second set that lasted three times longer than the first. The tiebreaker is Djokovic’s specialty. Going into the final, he won 14 consecutive Grand Slam matches.
The moment brought out the best in both players – big serves to corners; Bad drop shots clear winners and save points as the opposition close in on the net – and the packed crowd, with alternating chants of “Novak, Novak” and “Carlos, Carlos” echoing around center court.
And then just when it looked as if Djokovic was poised to grab a solid two-set lead, he sent two backhands into the net to give Alcaraz a chance to equalise. Alcaraz then cracked a backhand from Djokovic’s serve on the line to clinch the match in each set.
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
Alcaraz hit a shot to Djokovic’s jaw and Djokovic felt it. The third set became a set of errors by Djokovic. He struggled to regain his footing in the match, no more than a match halfway through the 13 draw, which ended with a forehand from Djokovic hitting the net.
As he usually does when he’s down, Djokovic took a long bathroom break before the fourth set. He splashes water on his face and talks to himself in the mirror. Usually, he shows a different player, and Sunday was no different, as he seized the lead again, broke Alcaraz’s serve halfway through, came back in the head and took the set like Alcaraz, again sharp and defensive, double. Wrong.
After nearly four hours, they were back where they started. Nearly five hours of drama boils down to a few moments.
“He surprised me,” Djokovic said of Alcaraz, who took in his eyes elements of his style, that of Nadal and Federer and produced versatility on grass — his grass! — much sooner than he expected. “I’ve never played a player like him.”