Carlos Alcaraz | A new heir to the tennis throne
In contemporary sport, nothing has given into such extreme consolidation of power quite like men’s singles tennis. In the two decades from Wimbledon 2003 to French Open 2023, the trio of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have swept 65 of the 79 Grand Slam tournaments. In seven of the remaining 14, one of the three was in the final.
The reasons may be many — superior racquet technology, the homogenisation of courts and better fitness standards — but such empire building activity was unseen. A few signs of rebellious unrest were displayed by Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, who won three Majors each. But they were quelled with characteristic menace, as the ‘Big Three’ left little to no room for the inherent chaos in the game to rise up and cause a churn.
That such an imposing edifice is right now being shaken to its foundations is down to Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old reigning World No.1 who beat Djokovic in last Sunday’s Wimbledon final over five pulsating sets lasting nearly five hours. Just last month, Alcaraz suffered stress-induced full-body cramps against Djokovic in the French Open semifinals. And when he lost the first set of the final 1-6 and was down a set-point in the second-set tie-break, it seemed like a repeat act.
However, the Spaniard underwent a stunning transformation, energised by the stage and drawing from the audience’s energy, to win his second Slam after the US Open last year. In doing so, he handed Djokovic his first defeat in a five-set Major final since Murray beat him in the 2012 US Open, and denied his opponent a men’s record-extending 24th crown and a record-tying eighth Wimbledon trophy (with Federer).
It didn’t matter that Djokovic was the four-time defending champion, hadn’t lost at the iconic Centre Court since the 2013 final reverse to Murray and was last defeated in a completed match at SW19 by Sam Querrey in 2016. In fact, Federer last overcame Djokovic at a Slam in 2012. Nadal has not beaten Djokovic anywhere on the Tour outside clay since the 2013 US Open final. The ‘Next Gen’ talents of Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios and Casper Ruud have collectively won one of eight Major finals against Djokovic.
That Alcaraz found a way to permeate the Serb’s airtight record may well be his genius. Entering the grass swing, Alcaraz was unseasoned. He had only played six Tour-level matches on the surface, across two Wimbledons in 2021 and 2022. But he displayed all the quintessential tenets of lawn tennis to go undefeated at Queen’s Club and Wimbledon.
Alcaraz served well and his forehand speed was phenomenal, as seen from the very many shots he hit over 100mph. He even employed an abbreviated forehand with a less elaborate routine to counter the speed at which the ball comes off the grass. His volleying was first-rate, footwork excellent and the transition from the back to the forecourt resembled that of a grass-court natural. He took up aggressive returns positions and blocked, sliced and lobbed his way out of trouble. And those audacious, nerveless drop shots he executed imparted the kind of texture and colour to his game that is usually associated with generational talents.
Challenging the bar
“Djokovic has raised the bar and Alcaraz has come challenging,” Mats Wilander, a seven-time Major champion and one of the most serious watchers of modern-day tennis, told Eurosport. “For our sport, it is a huge moment. He is something so special that we might have never seen before.
Alcaraz handed Djokovic his first defeat in a five-set Major final since Murray beat him in the 2012 US Open
Of his 12 Tour titles, seven have come on clay, three on hard courts and two on grass.
Last year at the Madrid Masters — a tournament he has won twice now — he became the first man to beat Nadal and Djokovic in successive matches on clay and the youngest (then 19) to do so anywhere
“I include Federer, Nadal and Djokovic… because he has the touch of Federer, passion of Nadal and the movement and defensive skills of Novak Djokovic. Plus, he has a great time and he actually smiles on the tennis court. To do that at Wimbledon and in the final, it is really amazing.”
In fairness, Alcaraz has always been talked up for success. What’s astonishing is the speed at which he has made good on the promise. At 6’1”, he doesn’t possess the height advantage that the likes of Medvedev (6’6”), Alexander Zverev (6’6”) and Berrettini (6’5”) are blessed with. But he is still committed to playing first-strike tennis, with an innate ability to summon a point-ending shot whenever required.
It has also helped that in the current era, surface-centric stereotyping is slow to stick. When Federer, Nadal and Djokovic were on the ascendency, their styles were quickly associated with grass, clay and hard courts, respectively. It is to the trio’s credit that they grew to become consummate all-courters, but Alcaraz already seems to have few rough edges.
Of his 12 Tour titles, seven have come on clay, three on hard courts and two on grass. Last year at the Madrid Masters — a tournament he has won twice now — he became the first man to beat Nadal and Djokovic in successive matches on clay and the youngest (then 19) to do so anywhere. On hard courts, he has already secured three of the five biggest prizes (Indian Wells, Miami and US Open) and on grass, two of the most prestigious (Wimbledon and Queen’s). “Carlos, I think he was born to play these kind of matches,” Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former World No.1 and French Open champion, who is currently Alcaraz’s coach, said after the 2022 US Open victory. “When he arrived at the academy when he was 15, he was like spaghetti. We had to work. We saw that he had very fast hands, very fast legs, but no muscles at all. “[But] since the moment that I started with him, I saw some things that were different than the other guys at his age. I am still seeing it on the court. In important moments, he always tries to go [for it].”
It is fair to say that Alcaraz has now firmly established himself as the obvious heir. But his biggest achievement might be that he has helped fans rediscover the visceral thrill of watching an unpredictable tennis match, a feeling that the ‘Big Three’ had all but smoothed out of the game. “We have seen enough from Carlos Alcaraz in these championships [Wimbledon] that tells us that… first of all he is a very good learner,” said Wilander. “[He] adjusted to the most difficult surface we have in our sport.
“You will never know if he is going to get injured. But if he is healthy and plays this kind of tennis, he is only going to get better. I will put him somewhere between 10 and 15 Slams. But even if he ends up with five or six, he is too important for our sport.”
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