Tennis history, and men’s tennis history in particular, appears to be turning the pages at Wimbledon. The men’s singles final in 1980, which John McEnroe lost to Bjørn Borg, nevertheless became known as the moment when McEnroe became inescapable. A lesser-known match, from the fourth round in 2001, is in retrospect as important as any final – a 19-year-old Roger Federer beat Pete Sampras, who had won seven of the last eight Wimbledons, in a five-set slugfest . It was the only match they ever played, and Sampras would win only one more match at Wimbledon before his retirement; Federer would obviously go on to win many more matches there. The 2008 final, the most famous match of all time, marked the definitive inversion of the Rafael Nadal-Federer dynamic: after losing, Federer would not beat Nadal at a major again for nine years.
But there haven’t been many meaningfully threatening challengers of late, no young usurpers threatening to turn the page. Depending on how you think about tennis time, you could either argue that the last generational change at the top of the men’s game happened either 22 or 15 years ago. But we may (maybe!) be on the brink of the next one.
Carlos Alcaraz is the most freakish (apparently that’s the technical term) talent to emerge over the long, long 15 years. He hits a flat, nuclear ball. He is so quick it almost strains credulity. That speed has manifested itself in more ways than one: about 25 months ago, he was unseeded in one Challenger event (which he won). Now he has won 11 ATP tournaments, at all levels and on all surfaces. He has won a major. I should also mention that he is the No. 1 player in the world.
The Spaniard is as likable as a contender can be; he plays bombastic, dynamic tennis, then waves off translators to give charming interviews in his ever-improving English. He does not think tortured of the game at the very highest level. (“For me it is not a sacrifice at all. I love to play tennis. I love what I’m doing right now.”) No newcomer has managed that—appearing comfortable while struggling at the majors—since Novak Djokovic’s emergence at the top. But that was a long time ago: Djokovic turned professional in 2003, the year Alcaraz was born. That might make his rise feel a little prophetic. But he still needs to dethrone the champion.
I feel that I may have misled you. We still live in Novak Djokovic’s world. He has won three of the last four majors. He has won the last four Wimbledons. He is not the top seed in London – that would be Alcaraz – but he is favorite to win the tournament and if he does, he will go to New York with the opportunity to win the Grand Slam. He fell one win short of that feat in 2021. He has won 23 majors, more than Federer and Nadal, and shows no signs of stopping.
Djokovic’s rejection of the Covid-19 vaccine kept him from playing all North American tournaments in 2022 and early 2023, and a byzantine situation involving the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian players resulted in the tour stripping the 2022 edition of the Wimbledon ranking points. This is all to say: Djokovic, for reasons both within and beyond his control, is no longer the top-ranked player in the world, although any honest observer would admit that he is the best.
However, it is better to be lucky than good. And Carlos Alcaraz is both. In Djokovic’s absence, and even in his presence, the Spaniard has made himself a headliner. At the 2022 Madrid Open, he beat Nadal and Djokovic in consecutive matches en route to the title. And at the US Open, he played an unforgettable tournament, winning three consecutive marathon five-setters, each beginning in prime time and stretching until what felt like dawn. Fortunately, the final only lasted four sets and ended in a reasonable hour.
The last three matches in Alcaraz’s Open were each against other challengers from his generation: Jannik Sinner (21), Frances Tiafoe (25) and Casper Ruud (24). None of them fell over. Sinner and Tiafoe in particular played the matches of their lives, using all the power and misdirection they had to test the limits of the famous Alcaraz speed. And then he would somehow switch from defense to offense by firing a shot behind the back and then find a winner where there was none to be had. In the crowd, grown people jumped and shouted like cartoon characters as they watched a teenager climb to the top of the ATP rankings for the first time.
Contrast this with the scene just two years before: the 2020 US Open was mostly played in the absence of the Big Three (Nadal skipped out due to Covid concerns, Federer still nursing the knee injury that would eventually end his career, and Djokovic was disqualified after mistakenly hitting a linesman with a ball during his fourth round match), leaving the younger contenders with an open path to the title. Two of the most promising young players at the time, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, met in the final and played nervously, borderline intractable struggle. Thiem didn’t so much win the title as Zverev lost it. That made Thiem, amazingly, the first man born in the 90s to win a slam.
This was the world Alcaraz entered: a world without any clear order. Several generations have passed without producing a player who could definitively supplant the members of the Big Three at the top of the game. (For a brief moment young unicorn Daniil Medvedev looked like he might be a serious contender, but after winning his first major at the 2021 US Open by beating Djokovic, he coughed up a two-set lead to Nadal in the final of the Australian Open 2022. He hasn’t quite been the same since. Neither is he seven years older than Alcaraz.)
In tennis, there is almost always a champion and a challenger. That’s what keeps the game interesting: the idea that danger lurks far at the other end of the draw, and that the champion knows that something extra is needed at the critical moment. Someone younger and hungrier and with less to lose will show up and loudly make their demands. Only in martial arts is this dynamic more present.
But tennis has felt in recent years that it has borrowed another trope from the fighting world: The champion all alone, forced to beat tomato cans. The hero with nothing heroic to do. Djokovic has been without a true rival for a few years now, and that may have been a disservice to him. But that’s a problem Alcaraz might be able to solve.
the second, and the last time Alcaraz and Djokovic played each other was in the semifinals of the French Open last month. They split the first two sets and the match stayed electric: the two best movers on tour work the ball into impossible places. But in the third set, Alcaraz visibly began to suffer from cramps. He lost a match to receive treatment and was not competitive from then on, losing in four sets. After the game he attributed the tension to stress. This was not the great generational confrontation the tennis world had been waiting for.
And there is some evidence that Alcaraz anticipated, or perhaps feared, the great decisive moment. “Look, I’m not going to take credit away from myself,” Alcaraz said after the US Open. “But it’s true that Rafa, Djokovic, Federer, they were in a period where they were all playing. I was lucky, or whatever you want to call it, that Djokovic couldn’t play.” Whether this is a credit to the young star’s humility or a demonstration that he lacks the delusion of a champion is up to you to decide, but it’s clear that he wonders if he can, in fact, eat the world.
Also, yes, the cramps. They were the latest in a somewhat worrying trend of Alcaraz injuries. Like the great Spaniard he follows, Alcaraz is a grinder who stretches and twists and slides and chases every ball, and like Nadal, he’s also starting to get some unpleasant bodily feedback before he reaches the American drinking age. An abdominal tear in November 2022 caused him to miss the Australian Open. Post-traumatic arthritis in his left hand and muscle pain in his spinal cord forced him to withdraw from the Monte Carlo Masters. If Nadal was built like a tank, dense and immobile, Alcaraz is more of a fighter, sleek and piercing and dangerous. Both jets and tanks, it should be noted, are often damaged beyond repair.
But Nadal lived through his injuries to great acclaim for nearly two decades, and so can Alcaraz. But they may have postponed a true scorcher of the tour schedule and other high-profile matches with Djokovic at events such as the Australian Open and Tour Finals.
Wimbledon – or this Wimbledon, at least – doesn’t seem like the place where the big changing of the guard will happen. Alcaraz has played the tournament just twice, his best finish coming last year when he lost in the fourth round to Sinner. He has played fewer than 15 professional matches on grass. Djokovic, on the other hand, has not lost a match at Wimbledon since the 2017 quarterfinals. But Sinner, hot on the heels of his win over Alcaraz, won the first two sets of their quarter-final before dropping the next three. After applying the always suspect sport transitive property, one wonders if the distance between the two on grass is really that great. Today, Alcaraz gets a real chance to prove his grass bonafides when he takes on 2021 finalist Matteo Berettini.
Before reaching his first Wimbledon final in 2006, Nadal had only played the tournament twice and had looked utterly bewildered in 2005 when he lost in the second round. But that’s how the big ones often come out – they calibrate their rocket ship, and then they blast off. Alcaraz is more stable on clay and hard courts than he is on grass, but he is clearly approaching exit speed on the green stuff. He won the grass court tuneup tournament at the Queens Club. He made quick work of poor Jeremy Chardy, his first round opponent. In the third round, he held his own against Nicolas Jarry, a 6-foot bomber built in the shape of a Wimbledon spoiler. If he stays healthy, Alcaraz will be favored in every game until the finals. Then he gets another chance to turn the page. And not a moment too soon.