Alcaraz’s full-speed evolution as a proper rival may galvanise Djokovic | Wimbledon 2023

new balance

It was not too long ago that the pressure of facing Novak Djokovic in a significant match was far too overwhelming for Carlos Alcaraz, as he cramped up in the middle of their French Open semi-final and fell away. A week later, Alcaraz arrived at the Queen’s Club in London still trying to figure his life out on grass. He struggled with his movement as he was nearly beaten by a lucky loser, Arthur Rinderknech. “Honestly, my expectations in this tournament are not too high,” he said.

Within a few weeks, both issues were remarkably fully resolved. On Sunday Alcaraz defeated Djokovic in the Wimbledon final after five brutal sets in just his fourth tournament on grass, extending his winning run to 12 matches on the surface. It is an astounding achievement, a reflection of the talent at his grasp with his destructive shot-making, athleticism and complete game.

But Alcaraz’s talents would be greatly diminished if not for his mental fortitude and the healthy attitude he has towards success. Over the past five weeks, he has shown a prodigious ability to improve at an exponential rate, learning and making adjustments at the speed of light while always continuing to move forward. While some players can take years to improve facets of their games, Alcaraz views himself as a changed player compared to even a month ago: “I am a totally different player than the French Open. I grew up a lot since that moment. I learned a lot from that moment,” he said.

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The rapid growth is partly down to his healthy outlook. Alcaraz continually stresses the importance of smiling and positivity but, in the same breath, the few times he has fallen short in his young career the Spaniard has been honest and frank about his shortcomings. Just as he was clear about his nerves in Paris, he noted his initial discomfort on grass last month. As soon as he began to feel good on the surface, he was the first person to note that his expectations had changed.

After his achievements at Wimbledon, Alcaraz’s status is undeniable. He is a generational talent who has built his own unique brand of tennis while also taking the right lessons from the examples set by the Big Three. “I haven’t played a player like him ever, to be honest,” Djokovic said. “Roger and Rafa have their own strengths and weaknesses. Carlos is a very complete player. Amazing adapting capabilities that I think are a key for longevity and for a successful career on all surfaces.”

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Still, trying to predict the amount of grand slam titles he will win in his career is a pointless endeavour. The Big Three made racking up major titles and achieving sustained success look easy, but it is so difficult to remain at such a high level for so long. It takes luck, particularly with the ever-present threat of injuries, and continued motivation over a long period, which is difficult to anticipate. It is clear, however, that Alcaraz is without an equal among players born in the 1990s and later. Considering how rapidly he has improved during these early days on the tour, he is only going to continue his evolution.

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Such a difficult defeat places Djokovic’s career at an interesting point. This is by no means a passing of the torch; Djokovic won the first two grand slams of the year with relative ease. Over the past four years, Alcaraz is only the second player outside the Big Three to defeat Djokovic in a completed match at a grand slam tournament, after Daniil Medvedev in the final of the 2021 US Open.

Carlos Alcaraz during his victory over Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final.
Carlos Alcaraz defeated Novak Djokovic in a five-set classic to win his first Wimbledon title on Sunday. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Even after he was blitzed in straight sets by Medvedev, it is doubtful that Djokovic departed New York believing he had met his match. On Sunday, though, the players competed as equals. Djokovic certainly did not play his best tennis, squandering a crucial set point in the second-set tie-break and an early break point in the fifth set, but in the end he was right there. Had Alcaraz betrayed any hint of tension, the 23-time grand slam title winner would have pounced.

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Instead, the 20-year-old offered an exhibition of outrageous shot-making in the defining game of his career so far. He followed up an outlandish drop shot-lob combination with a lunging backhand volley winner off a great Djokovic passing shot, before slamming the door shut with some great serving. “I thought I returned very well that last game, but he was just coming up with some amazing, amazing shots,” Djokovic said.

That another worthy rival has finally risen to join Djokovic at the top table could actually be helpful to his career longevity; a career that has been defined by rivals pushing him to new levels. Winning is always welcome, but after such a long time in the game, the novelty of continuing to dominate lesser opponents would have surely worn off at some point. Now, while the 36-year-old remains in top shape, he has the motivation of trying to obstruct a generational talent for as long as he can.

new balance

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