Brilliant Carlos Alcaraz ushers in the changing of the guard | Wimbledon 2023

new balance


Over to you then, Carlos. Across almost five hours of mind-bendingly fine grass court play, seasoned with cussedness, crowd-snark and some wonderfully fine champion will, the future of men’s tennis became the present too. It felt fitting that the end note of a beautifully high grade men’s Wimbledon final was also unexpectedly tender.

As Carlos Alcaraz crumpled on to his back on the Centre Court turf, Novak Djokovic walked across and hugged him, looking, for the first time since the first set four hours ago, back when the world was still young, like the only real grown up court. Ten years in the making, Djokovic had at least finally given the Centre Court what it wanted. Specifically, a defeat. But what a defeat this was, or rather what a victory for Alcaraz, who was simply sublime here.

It is genuinely rare in sport to witness such an obvious meeting of grand talents heading in opposite directions, one somewhere close to the end, the other just stepping out of the doors and on to the surface of the moon. The changing of the guard stuff, the GOAT versus the kid, has followed both players through the draw.

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But if Djokovic did look below his best here at times, it would be wrong to attribute this to declining powers.

The real cause, the real story was a brilliant display of champion nerve, and intuitive learning on the job from Alcaraz, who began the match looking callow and rushed, and ended in a rich seam of balletic, creative, endlessly varied grass court tennis.

This was an astonishing tennis match. For half an hour Djokovic just seemed to be hustling his man off the court, taking the first set 6-1 in a blur. From there it became something entirely different, a match Alcaraz kept on winning, then kept not winning, dragged back by the dark arts, a refusal to bend a champion will so intense Djokovic eventually began to attack the court furniture, mangling his racket head on the net post as he went a break down in the final set, a man literally at war with the basic fittings and fixtures of tennis.

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At the end one thing is obviously true. Alcaraz is absolutely the real deal, a challenger to the Djokovic supremacy at any stage of his prime years not just the tail end. Could there be a better way to win this final as a 20-year-old, to go a set down to an all-time great out there in pursuit of a calendar grand slam, then end up winning this thing playing magically varied tennis at the far end of your physical limits?

Novak Djokovic feels the strain while delivering the runner-up’s speech.
Novak Djokovic feels the strain while delivering the runner-up’s speech. Photograph: Shi Tang/Getty Images

There will be other matches for Alcaraz on this court. To win this one is an act of empire building, the kind of victory that stays with you through the challenges to come. Both men are relentless, but somehow Djokovic always looked like an icon in the process of being torn down. No matter how hard he pushed, those startling shots and grabs and gets just kept on coming back. There is no escape from Alcaraz.

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And through it all strange things kept on happening. At one point Djokovic left the court for six minutes to have his leg tended to, then returned playing like a superhero, moving like a god. Alcaraz double faulted to cede the fourth set, from a position of near infallibility, then instantly regained his level, remembering what he was doing in those lighter, more sunlit moments, reeling off sublime volleys, drop shots, touch play, and becoming more creative as the pressure ratcheted up, seeing it all in 5D.

Serving to go 5-3 up in the final set he produced a punched forehand winner of such startling power the air seemed to leave Centre Court, sucked up out into the sky by the collective gawp. Who does this? Who does it when they’ve never been here before, so deep into this kind of day on this kind of stage?

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Centre Court had seemed a little sleepy at 2pm as the players emerged, the biggest cheer reserved for the appearance of the Princess of Wales, who has had a good fortnight here, who feels already like an apex piece of All England Club branding. And early on Alcaraz was over-hitting the ball, looking tight and overly aggressive. Wimbledon is won with your feet as much as your hands, the stuff that happens right down by the scrub, the bounce, the run of that tricksy surface under shifting south London skies. Djokovic played at a high, safe, gruelling level, taking the errors that came.

Two key moments turned the watch. First the second set tie-break. Djokovic came into this match having won his last 15 of them. He went 3-0 up in what felt like a matter of seconds. And still somehow Alcaraz won it from there, levelling the match at one set all with the most sublime backhand down the line.

The second thing that happened was the longest game in the history of tennis midway through the third set, which went to 13 deuces, and may or may not have actually been the longest game ever, but certainly felt like it. Alcaraz finally took it. And in that moment something seemed to shift, as he found the freedom to reach those higher registers again. Who knows how far that talent can be stretched? The good news on a day of shifting tides is that Wimbledon will see much, much more of it from here.

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