For more than a decade, 45 players had failed to beat Novak Djokovic on Center Court. The latest to do so was Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final on July 7, 2013.
In 34 consecutive matches, the Serbian had not lost on any of the courts of the All England Club and lifted the trophy in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 (the event was not played in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic), and now to the final this year.
Before that match on Sunday, Djokovic had won a ridiculous 60 of the 65 sets he had played in grand slam events in 2023. He had also won his last 15 tie-breaks in those three tournaments.
Oh, and there was the small matter of the 23 grand slam titles in his closet and all those experiences have taught him.
On Sunday, however, he lost a tie-break and lost three sets – thus losing his Wimbledon title.
Carlos Alcaraz is different.
Carlos Alcaraz is the compelling rival both Novak Djokovic and men’s tennis need
Different from all the players who tried and failed to stop Djokovic here, and different from all who have come before him. You don’t have to trust me on that; I’ll pass you on to Djokovic.
“I’ve never played a player like him, to be honest.”
A world No. 1 at the age of 19 after winning the US Open last year, Alcaraz was the youngest player to reach the top of the rankings and, still only 20, remains the youngest player in the top 50. Now he also the third youngest male champion at Wimbledon since tennis turned professional in 1968, after Boris Becker (1985) and Bjørn Borg (1976).
BC (Before Carlos), no player since Djokovic was born in May 1987 had won the Wimbledon championship.
On the 78 previous occasions that Djokovic had taken the first set of a match at Wimbledon, he went on to win.
So how did Alcaraz tame the player he had described as a “lion” before Sunday’s final?
Well, he got Djokovic’s serve, for starters – certainly from the second set onwards. The reigning champion faced as many break points in the final (19) as he had in the rest of the tournament combined. Alcaraz broke his serve five times during the five sets after Djokovic had lost just three service games in his six matches heading into the main event.
The most painful break for Djokovic will have been the fifth game of the third set. Already a break up, Alcaraz just wouldn’t let up in a huge 26-minute game that involved 32 points and seven break points.
The Spaniard hit 66 winners to Djokovic’s 32, including in clutch moments.
What about unforced errors, I hear you ask? Well, he only hit five more than his opponent (45 to 40), so it wasn’t like he was being overly reckless either. He often talks about playing aggressively – this was controlled, impactful aggression.
The speed with which Alcaraz has mastered the grass is absurd. He had only played three tournaments on it before this Wimbledon. In his two previous visits here, he had never made it past the fourth round, and now he has won the damn thing — against a player who looked unbeatable on this surface. Alcaraz has played 12 matches on grass this summer, at Queen’s and Wimbledon, winning all 12.
So what changed? Maximizing his playing time at Queen’s and Wimbledon will certainly have helped. “Every time I get on the court and play it’s better for me,” he said after winning the west London warm-up event last month. “I’m getting more experience, that’s really, really important on that surface.”
Alcaraz has become more familiar with the low bounce, the sometimes risky one, and has been able to transfer his speed from the game’s clay and hard courts to grass. That has proved key during his title-winning run here. His movement is so measured and purposeful and he has so rarely looked like he was out of a point due to his confidence and speed of recovery.
Two months out of his teenage years, he has become as good on grass as he is on clay and on hard courts. Djokovic, 36, nodded to it on Center Court after the match: “I thought I’d have trouble with you on hard courts and clay, but not on grass…”
And later the deposed master expanded it. “I have to say he surprised me. He surprised everyone with how quickly he adapted to grass this year. He hasn’t had too many wins on grass in the last two years he’s been playing.
“I think Queen’s has helped him a lot. He came close to losing that opening match at Queen’s (Alcaraz needed all three sets to beat world No. 82 Arthur Rinderknech 4-6, 7-5, 7- 6).Then he started to take off, more and more wins against really good players.
“Wimbledon courts are slower than Aorangi courts (this tournament’s practice courts) or maybe Queen’s courts. I guess it’s more suited to baseliners like he is.
“I have to say that the discs, that kind of chipping returns, the net game; it is very impressive. I didn’t expect him to play so well this year on grass, but he has proven without a doubt that he is the best player in the world.
“He’s playing some great tennis on different surfaces and he deserves to be where he is.”
When asked by Athletics earlier in the tournament, what was the most difficult thing about facing Djokovic, Alcaraz, who lost in four sets to him a month ago in French Open semifinals, said: “Well, the pressure. I would say the pressure he puts on everyone — not just me, everyone — to play at their best for about three hours in a grand slam.
“I have to deal with it, but it’s something I really want. I hope to play a final here against him. For me, this is probably the toughest Novak faces.”
On Sunday, Alcaraz would have loved it to be over in three hours. In reality, they fought for four hours and then another 42 minutes. But the pressure he talked about earlier in the fortnight certainly didn’t get to him.
“Credit to Carlos,” Djokovic said. “Fantastic poise in the important moments. For someone of his age to handle the nerves like this, play attacking tennis and close the match like he did… I thought I came back very well the last match, but he came just with some great, great shots.”
One of the best examples of that poise and fearlessness came in the second set tie-break. With the Center Court crowd chanting his name before the deciding point, the Spaniard hit a blistering backhand winner past Djokovic to level at one set all. The atmosphere was electric and he clapped off the applause and put a finger to his ear as he walked to his seat.
He then maintained that momentum and promptly broke Djokovic in the opening game of the third set, putting him in a great position at the time. to the game happened.
The entire first set had lasted 34 minutes; the fifth game of the third set lasted 26. Alcaraz broke again to lead 4-1. After his investment to win that game, the rest of that set felt like a formality. The 6-1 result inflicted on Djokovic is not known. In his 71-tournament grand slam career, it has happened only 13 times.
The fourth set was one to forget for Alcaraz, Djokovic took it 6-3, but he regrouped in the fifth set and was now all locked up. There were some bullet forehand races to keep at 1-0 down and in the next game, broke courtesy of three winners. He then held to love for 3-1 and finished that match with an ace. He did the same at the end of his service games to go up 4-2 and 5-3. Then there were two brilliant winners when he served for the match.
Alcaraz held his head as those around him lost theirs. Two moments in particular stand out. A Djokovic backhand into the net on set point in the second set tie-break. Then, a point later, another weak backhand at the net gave Alcaraz a break point. He did the business properly.
“I would say the tie-break in the second (was my biggest regret in the match),” Djokovic said. “The backhands let me down, to be honest. Set point, I missed the backhand. He played a backhand that was pretty long on the court, had a little bit of a bad bounce. But I shouldn’t have missed that shot.
“So at 6-6 again, another backhand from the middle of the court into the net. Just two very bad backhands. That is it. The battle shifted to his side. It turned around. He just raised his level so much in the third. I wasn’t myself for a while.”
There was also a very costly missed drive volley when Djokovic had a break point with 1-0 ahead in the last set.
“I managed to regroup and regain momentum midway through the fourth. I felt the momentum shift to my side. That was my chance (drive volley early in the fifth). That was my opportunity,” said Djokovic. “That break point, I think I played a really good point, like I set up that drive volley.
“It was very, very windy today. The wind kind of took it to an awkward place where I couldn’t hit the smash, I had to hit the drive volley like drop back. I saw him perfectly run to the opposite corner. I kind of wanted to mistake him for that spurt, and I missed.”
Alcaraz broke in the next game and then served for the match and the championship. The break of serve that followed his miss so enraged Djokovic that he swung his racket around the net post.
At times on Center Court it was like that Spider-Man meme – Djokovic must have felt he was playing against himself. There were similar shots, similar movements, a similar I-will-never-ever-ever-stop-run mentality.
“I think people have been talking for the last 12 months or so about Carlos’ game having certain elements from Roger (Federer), Rafa (Nadal) and myself. I agree with that. I think that he basically has the best of all three worlds,” said Djokovic.
“He has this mental resilience and real maturity for someone who is 20 years old. It’s quite impressive. He has this Spanish bull mentality with competitiveness and fighting spirit and incredible defense that we’ve seen with Rafa over the years.
“And I think he has some good sliding backhands that he has some similarities to my backhands. Yes, two-handed backhand, defense, being able to adapt. I think that has been my strength for many years. He has that too.
“I’ve never played a player like him, to be honest. Roger and Rafa have their own strengths and weaknesses. Carlos is a very complete player; amazing adaptability, which I believe is the key to longevity and a successful career on any surface.”
Is it a shift? We’ll see, it certainly felt pretty seismic to sit on Center Court and watch Alcaraz go toe to toe with Djokovic and emerge with the Wimbledon trophy.
Carlos Alcaraz is the compelling rival both Novak Djokovic and men’s tennis need
(Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)