Before play could start, Carlos Alcaraz was introduced to another Wimbledon tradition. The Championships is ferociously bound by its traditions and directed by protocol. One such custom is that finalists are to climb up from the locker rooms, and on cue, make a carefully chaperoned two-minute 20-second walk through a gallery adorned by photographs of former champions.
But finalists are afforded no time to pause and take in the surroundings. They prefer to stay in the moment.
On Sunday, on those very walls that lead in to the most famous tennis court in the world, Alcaraz ensured his own photograph would be added to the collection.
Playing in his first final at Wimbledon, against Novak Djokovic, a man who had won it seven times, Alcaraz stayed in the moment for four hours and 42 minutes on Centre Court and won 1-6, 7-6(6), 6-1, 3-6, 6-4. And then he was opened to another world of tradition – the lap of honour, reading his name printed on the winners’ list, greeting fans from the balcony…
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Yet what the endearing, ever-smiling 20-year-old was most proud of was the way he competed.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” he said on court, with the golden Gentlemen’s Singles Trophy – complete with the pineapple on top – in his hands.
“It’s great to win, but even if I had lost, I would be really proud of myself with this amazing run. Making history in this beautiful tournament, playing a final against a legend of our sport.
“It’s a dream come true to be able to play on these stages. It’s amazing for a boy, 20-year-old, to reach this kind of situation really fast. I’m really, really proud of myself and the team that I have. The work we put in every day, to be able to lift this.”
This was a final that fans and pundits wanted. This was a clash between world No 1 and world No 2 in a meeting of two generations – this was the third largest age gap between men’s singles finalists at Grand Slams, 15 years and 348 days.
The storylines were intriguing as well. Djokovic, at 36, was a 23-time Grand Slam champion who was one win away from equalling Margaret Court’s record of the most singles Majors of all time, and one away from equalling Roger Federer’s record for the most Wimbledon men’s singles titles. And it had been a whole 10 years and 9 days since the Serbian had last lost a match on Centre Court – in the final in 2013.
Alcaraz, the top seed, was looking to win only his second Grand Slam after he clinched the US Open last year.
They had met a month ago, at the French Open semi-final. Much was expected of that match, and indeed it did provide, until Alcaraz started to cramp. That result just added to the intrigue ahead of the match on Sunday.
It was Djokovic who started the stronger of the two players, racing to a 5-0 lead in the opening set before claiming it 6-1. That was the wake-up call Alcaraz needed.
“After the first set, I thought, ‘Carlos, increase the level, everyone will be disappointed,’” Alcaraz said.
And so he did. He started to find the consistency and range in his high-risk stroke play that matches his remarkable athleticism. If Djokovic is known for his speed on the court, his desire to chase every ball, and his ability to send it back with interest, Alcaraz was pretty much a younger version. Only more audacious.
In the fifth set, Alcaraz faced a break point, but dug out shot after shot. Djokovic sent him to both corners of the baseline, but the Spaniard still managed to get the ball back into play till he drew an error from the Serb. Then he played a delightful drop shot that left Djokovic – one of the best anticipators the sport has seen – flat-footed. And then came an explosive down-the-line forehand winner to make it 1-1.
In the next game, with Alcaraz on a break point, he again sprinted left and right before thumping a backhand passing winner to get the lead – one he would hold onto as he confidently served out for the title.
“Credit to Carlos. Amazing poise in the important moments,” Djokovic said in his post-match press conference. “For someone of his age to handle the nerves like this, be playing attacking tennis, and to close out the match the way he did... I thought I returned very well that last game, but he was just coming up with some amazing, amazing shots.”
He later added in the conference: “I didn’t expect him to play so well this year on grass, but he’s proven that he’s the best player in the world, no doubt. He’s playing some fantastic tennis on different surfaces and he deserves to be where he is.”
While Alcaraz was finding the lines, Djokovic’s consistency started to waver. Though the Serb committed fewer unforced errors than Alcaraz, 40 to 45, he hit 32 winners to Alcaraz’s 66.
Alcaraz’s rapid rise up the tennis hierarchy has been remarkable. A constant supplier to those producing online highlight-reels, the youngster from El Palmar has been the best answer so far to the question of who after the ‘Big 3.’ Several names have come and gone, but Alcaraz is proving he’s ready to take up the mantle. Perhaps, he already has. After all, he’s the first player after Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Djokovic, since 2003 to win Wimbledon.
Though Daniil Medvedev did become the first player from the Next Gen to beat Djokovic in a Grand Slam final – US Open 2021 – the Serb, who had a 34-match unbeaten streak at Wimbledon, has been virtually unchallenged by anyone not named Federer or Murray at the All England Club. Now Alcaraz has made the breakthrough, that too on a surface he’s not entirely comfortable with.
Indeed, the Spaniard has brought in comparisons with the greats.
“I think people have been talking in the past 12 months or so about his game consisting of certain elements from Roger, Rafa, and myself,” Djokovic added. “I would agree with that. I think he’s got basically best of all three worlds.”
But Alcaraz has followed his own journey. He is living his own experiences. And he is creating his own history.
“I’m going to think,” he added, “that I’m full Carlos Alcaraz.”