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Wimbledon champ Carlos Alcaraz shows us there’s no need to rein in expectations for him
The Spaniard has always been an athlete and shotmaker extraordinaire. Now we know he can be a winner, too—against any opponent, on any court.
Published Jul 16, 2023
“I grew up a lot since that moment in the French Open,” Carlos Alcaraz told ESPN a few minutes after his 1-6, 7-6 (6), 6-1, 3-6, 6-4 win over Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon men’s final on Sunday.
“That moment in the French Open” happened on June 9—i.e., five weeks ago. Things really do happen fast in the life of this 20-year-old. One month he’s cramping after two sets in Paris, and talking about how scared Djokovic makes him. The next month he’s coming from a set down to win one of the greatest matches of all time, on the sport’s most storied stage, over the man who may be the best player ever.
Personally, I’m glad I never got around to writing the column I was planning after Roland Garros: “It’s time to rein in our expectations for Carlos Alcaraz.”
If anything, Alcaraz was being modest when he said he grew up a lot in the last five weeks. It felt like he grew up a lot in the nearly five hours that it took him to win this match, and hand Djokovic just his third defeat at a Grand Slam since the start of 2021. When Alcaraz walked into Centre Court at 2:00 p.m. London time, he was an athlete and shotmaker extraordinaire, but still very much a student to the Grand Slam master on the other side of the net. At 7:00 p.m., after taking a few lessons from Djokovic along the way, Alcaraz walked off as the first new Wimbledon men’s champion in 10 years, and a player in full.
Alcaraz began by showing one of his few flaws: A tendency to try to hit shots that aren’t there—when you can crack a winner from anywhere, the way he can, you tend to try to do it a little too often. Djokovic pushed him into the corners, backed him off the baseline, and drew him into the net; instead of getting the ball back and restarting the point, Alcaraz’s answer was to fight fire with more fire. He shanked a forehand to go down an early break. He drilled a backhand in the net to go down a second break. He lost the first set 6-1. Up a break point early in the second set, Alcaraz lost a 29-shot rally to Djokovic. The Serb is 16 years older than the Spaniard, but he was still a step ahead on all the big points.
Until he wasn’t. The change came with Djokovic ahead 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker. Djokovic had won his last 15 breakers. He’s legendary for going into lockdown mode during them, and never missing. At 5-5, he knifed a backhand past Alcaraz at the net to reach set point for a two-set lead. He was 252-1 at major tournaments when he was up two sets to love; he hadn’t lost from that position in 13 years. But then something inexplicable happened: On the next two points, Djokovic put two routine backhands into the net. When Alcaraz hit a backhand return winner at set point, he was alive. For the first time all day, so was the crowd.
“Just two very poor backhands. That’s it. The match shifted to his side,” Djokovic said. “It turned around. He just raised his level so much in the third. I wasn’t myself for quite some time.”
“If I would have lost that set, probably I couldn't lift the trophy,” Alcaraz said. “I probably could have lost in three sets, straight sets. I would say that gave me a lot of confidence, a lot of motivation to [keep] going and to think that I’m able to win Novak in that stage.”
Alcaraz raised his level in the third set, but he also shifted his tactics and mindset in a Djokovichian direction. He made more balls, he defended without going for broke, he didn’t give anything away. That included the mind-bending, body-destroying fifth game, which lasted 32 points and nearly 27 minutes. Alcaraz was already up a break, and he could have been forgiven for tapping out at some point during those 27 minutes; but he persevered and won it on his seventh break point. Djokovic is known as the man who takes his opponent’s legs, but this time Alcaraz had taken his. Djokovic threw away the last two games of the set and retreated to the locker room for seven minutes.
I’ve won some epic finals that I was very close to losing. Maybe this is kind of a fair-and-square deal, I guess, to lose a match like this for me here. Novak Djokovic
To no one’s surprise, he came back and quickly turned things around. Alcaraz got a little too cute with a drop shot in the middle of the fourth, and Djokovic made him pay for it.
“I managed to regroup and regain the momentum midway in the fourth,” Djokovic said. “I felt that the momentum shifted to my side. That was my chance. That was my opportunity.”
In the fifth, two points shifted the match yet again, and ultimately decided it. The first came with Alcaraz serving at 1-1, break point for Djokovic. He worked the rally to his advantage, had a high volley that he could have put away, but he put it in the net instead. Alcaraz held.
“That break point, I think I played a really good point, kind of set up that drive volley,” Djokovic said. “It was very, very windy today. The wind kind of, yeah, took it to an awkward place where I couldn’t hit the smash, I had to hit the drive volley kind of falling back.”
In the next game, Alcaraz earned his own break point. Again they rallied, again Djokovic had the advantage, but again he couldn’t come up with the finishing shot. Instead, his approach sat up and Alcaraz hammered a backhand pass for a winner, to the delight of the crowd, and the disgust of Djokovic, who smashed his racquet into the net post.
Six games and half an hour later, Alcaraz served for it. The 60-odd winners, the innumerable great gets and jaw-dropping shots: None of it would matter if he couldn’t hold here. This was the type of match that Djokovic had been finding a way to win for the last dozen years. Could Alcaraz hold him off this time?
He started by putting a drop shot into the net for 0-15. Then he turned around and hit the bravest combination imaginable: Another drop shot, followed by a winning topspin lob for 15-15. On the next point, Djokovic ripped a crosscourt backhand pass that looked sure to win him the point. Instead, Alcaraz lunged just far enough to poke a volley back for his own winner. The tables, it seemed, were finally turning; a younger player was finally beating one of the Big 3 at his own game.
At match point, Alcaraz made a first serve, then ran forward to knock off what would surely be the winning forehand. On another day, he might have overhit it, or belted it 100 m.p.h. into the corner. Today, he made sure the ball went into the court. It was just good enough to keep Djokovic from returning it. It wasn’t a spectacular, Alcaraz-esque end, but it was a winning one.
“Probably before this match, I thought that I wasn't ready to beat Djokovic in five sets, an epic match like this,” Alcaraz said. “Stay good physically or good mentally about five hours against a legend, probably I learned [that] about myself today.”
We’re not used to seeing Djokovic play the role of the loser in Slam epics like this one. Only at Roland Garros against Rafael Nadal has he failed to win them. He handled it graciously and professionally, as expected, and praised Alcaraz effusively. But with his tears, and his words to his family—let’s “love each other”—he also gave us an idea of what it meant to him, and what losing can still mean to a player who has won everything many times over. It’s those moments, maybe more than the winning ones, that deepen a player’s relationship with a fanbase, and maybe he did that today with Wimbledon’s.
“I’ve won some epic finals that I was very close to losing. Maybe this is kind of a fair-and-square deal, I guess, to lose a match like this for me here,” Djokovic said.
“What a match today to be part of. I hope, yeah, everyone enjoyed it. I move on.”
Alcaraz moves on as well, to a new altitude in the sporting universe.
“Didn’t get down, didn’t give up. I fought until the last ball,” he said in summation, sounding like another recent Spanish champion here.
Alcaraz has always been an athlete and shotmaker extraordinaire. Now we know he can be a winner, too—against any opponent, on any court. There’s no need to rein in our expectations for him at all.