After years of false starts, men’s tennis finally has a proper war between the generations.
In a startling comeback that rocked the All England Club’s venerable Centre Court, Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish star who has blitzed the sport in his brief career, pulled off the nearly impossible, beating Novak Djokovic in a Wimbledon final on the grass that the man widely recognized as the greatest ever to play the sport has long treated as his back lawn.
Besides chasing the Grand Slam, Djokovic was aiming to extinguish the dreams of another heralded upstart challenging his hold on the game, which, so far, has amounted to 23 Grand Slam tournament titles. Alcaraz is the standard-bearer of the next group of players who are supposed to move the sport beyond the era of the Big Three, an era that includes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and that Djokovic has ruled longer than many expected.
Alcaraz won the U.S. Open last year in thrilling, acrobatic fashion, serving notice that men’s tennis was going to be shaken up by an unusual talent. This year, he withdrew from the Australian Open to nurse an injury and was defeated by Djokovic in the semifinals at the French Open. But the buzz around him and his future never diminished.
“It’s great for the new generation,” Alcaraz said, “to see me beating him and making them think that they are capable to do it.”
Down after the first set and struggling simply to avoid embarrassment, Alcaraz rediscovered his unique combination of speed, power and touch and figured out the subtleties of grass-court tennis in the nick of time.
He clawed his way back into the match in an epic, 85-minute second set in which he was a point away from what figured to be an insurmountable two-set deficit.
He seized control of the match midway through the third set, then teetered in the fourth set as Djokovic, Wimbledon’s four-time defending champion and seven-time winner, rediscovered the footwork that has long served as the foundation of his success.
Djokovic is as dangerous a player as there has ever been when facing defeat, but Alcaraz rose once more to claim victory, 1-6, 7-6 (6), 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, not only overcoming Djokovic’s endless skills and talents but breaking his spirit, too.
When the momentum swung one last time, as Alcaraz cranked a backhand down the line to break Djokovic’s serve early in the fifth set, the Serb with the steely mind smashed his racket on the net post. A few points earlier, he had frittered away his chance to seize control, swinging at a floating forehand in the middle of the court and sending it into the net. Now, just a few minutes later, the thing that has so rarely happened to him in recent years — a loss to a relative newcomer on a grand stage, especially this grand stage — was happening.
Last month, Djokovic, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, finally eclipsed his longtime rivals, Nadal and Federer. But this loss cost him a shot at one of the few prizes he has not achieved — becoming the first player since 1969 to achieve the Grand Slam in men’s singles, winning all four major tournaments in a single year. He was within one match of pulling off the feat two years ago. This time, at 36 years old, an age when most champions have retired to the broadcast booth, he was eight matches away.
It seemed so close, but in the final game, Alcaraz showcased why everyone has been making such a fuss about him for so long. He finished Djokovic with his sexiest weapons — the silky drop shot, the artful topspin lob, a blasting serve and one last ripping forehand that Djokovic reached for but could not lift over the net.
Alcaraz dropped to the ground and rolled on the grass, his hands over his face in disbelief. He hugged Djokovic at the net, shook hands with the umpire, picked up a loose ball from the grass and punted it into the crowd before heading into the stands to hug his parents and his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero.
“Beating Novak at his best, in this stage, making history, being the guy to beat him after 10 years unbeaten on that court, is amazing for me,” Alcaraz said.
After taking the champion’s trophy from Catherine, Princess of Wales, on a day that brought out A-list celebrities like the actors Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig, Emma Watson and Hugh Jackman and the singer Ariana Grande, he got to joke with King Felipe VI of Spain, who also watched the young Spanish player’s triumph.
“Now that I won I hope you are coming to more of my matches,” Alcaraz said to the king.
One of Alcaraz’s many mentors, Nadal, the great Spanish player who had dethroned another Wimbledon icon, Federer, in 2008, wrote on social media that Alcaraz had brought “immense joy” to Spanish tennis.
“A very strong hug, and enjoy the moment Champion!!!” wrote Nadal, who missed the tournament because of recent hip and abdominal surgery.
The loss created a rare moment for Djokovic, who acknowledged that on this day at least he had lost to a better player.
“A tough one to swallow,” Djokovic said of the loss. He then choked back tears as he looked at his son, who was smiling at him from a courtside seat. “Thank you for supporting me,” he told his family. “I will give you a big hug and we can all love each other.”
On Saturday, Mats Wilander, the seven-time Grand Slam winner who is now one of the most respected voices in the sport, put Djokovic’s chances of beating Alcaraz and winning the four 2023 Grand Slam events at 90 percent.
“He’s got too many weapons,” Wilander said. “He knows everything there is to know about the sport. He’s got it all down to a science. The opponents aren’t ready for him.”
In the first minutes of Sunday’s final, Wilander looked prophetic. The most important men’s match on the tennis calendar looked like a contest between two players who had walked onto Centre Court under completely different circumstances.
It was the usual July Sunday for Djokovic. But Alcaraz was playing in his first Wimbledon final, and that weight was made heavier after the stress-induced, full-body cramps he suffered during his semifinal showdown with Djokovic at the French Open last month. That had been the first major moment when Alcaraz, the top seed and the world No. 1, failed to live up to his hype.
Sunday was different. But not at first.
From the opening moments, Djokovic pinned Alcaraz in the back corner of the court with low slicing shots that made it impossible for Alcaraz to go on the attack. He crushed service returns, aiming at the brown patches of dirt at Alcaraz’s feet and sending him running backward.
Djokovic was a set up before the match was a half-hour old but Alcaraz held a 2-0 lead in the second.
Alcaraz’s chance to salvage his maiden Wimbledon final came down to a crucial tiebreaker at the end of an epic second set that lasted three times as long as the first one. Tiebreakers are Djokovic’s specialty. Entering the final, he had won 14 straight in Grand Slam matches.
The moment brought out the best in both players — the big serves to the corners; nasty drop shots; crisp, point-saving winners with the opponent closing in at the net — and the packed crowd, with alternating chants of “Novak, Novak,” and “Carlos, Carlos” echoing around the Centre Court overhangs.
And then just when it looked as if Djokovic was poised to grab a commanding two-set lead, he sent two backhands into the net to give Alcaraz a chance to draw even. Alcaraz then cracked a backhand return of Djokovic’s serve down the line to knot the match at a set each.
The former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
Alcaraz had landed a shot to Djokovic’s jaw, and Djokovic felt it. The third set became an array of Djokovic errors. He battled to regain a foothold in the match, never more so than a game midway through that went to 13 deuces, that ended with a Djokovic forehand into the net.
As he usually does when he is down, Djokovic took a lengthy bathroom break before the fourth set. He splashes water on his face and talks to himself in the mirror. Usually, he emerges a different player, and Sunday was no different, as he seized the initiative once more, breaking Alcaraz’s serve midway through, getting back in his head and taking the set as Alcaraz, once more edgy and on the defensive, double-faulted.
After nearly four hours, they were back where they started. Nearly five hours of drama would come down to a few moments.
“He surprised me. He surprised everyone,” Djokovic said of Alcaraz, who, in his eyes, had taken elements of his style, Nadal’s and Federer’s and produced a prowess on grass — his grass! — far sooner than he expected. “I haven’t played a player like him, ever.”