Novak Djokovic now has the motivation to thwart a generational talent for as long as he can – The Irish Times

It wasn’t long ago that the pressure of facing Novak Djokovic in a momentous match was too overwhelming for Carlos Alcaraz when he cramped midway through their French Open semi-final and dropped out. A week later, Alcaraz arrived at the Queen’s Club in London, still trying to figure out his life on the grass. He struggled with his movement when he was nearly beaten by a lucky loser, Arthur Rinderknech. “Honestly, my expectations for this tournament are not too high,” he said.

Within a few weeks, both problems were remarkably fully resolved. On Sunday, Alcaraz defeated Djokovic in the Wimbledon final after five brutal sets in just his fourth tournament on grass, extending his winning streak to 12 matches on the surface. It is an astonishing performance, a reflection of the talent at his disposal with his destructive shooting, athleticism and complete play.

But Alcaraz’s talents would be greatly diminished if not for his mental strength and the healthy attitude he has towards success. Over the past five weeks, he has shown an amazing ability to improve at an exponential rate, learning and making adjustments at the speed of light while always continuing to move forward. While some players can take years to improve facets of their game, Alcaraz sees himself as a changed player compared to even a month ago: “I’m a completely different player since the French Open. I’ve grown up a lot since that moment. I learned a lot from that moment,” he said.

The rapid growth is partly due to his healthy outlook. Alcaraz constantly emphasizes the importance of smiles and positivity, but in the same breath, the few times he has come up short in his young career, the Spaniard has been honest and frank about his shortcomings. Just as he was aware of his nerves in Paris, he noticed his first discomfort on grass last month. As soon as he started to feel good on the surface, he was the first person to notice that his expectations had changed.

After his performances at Wimbledon, Alcaraz’s status is undeniable. He is a generational talent who has built his own unique brand of tennis while at the same time taking the right lessons from the three great examples. “I’ve never played a player like him, to be honest,” Djokovic said. “Roger and Rafa have their own strengths and weaknesses. Carlos is a very complete player. Great adaptability, which I think is the key to longevity and for a successful career on all surfaces.”

Still, trying to predict the amount of grand slam titles he will win in his career is a futile endeavor. The Big Three made it look easy to collect major titles and achieve sustained success, but it is so difficult to stay at such a high level for so long. It takes luck, especially with the ever-present threat of injury and continued motivation over a long period of time, which is hard to predict. However, it is clear that Alcaraz is unparalleled among players born in the 1990s and beyond. Given how quickly he has improved during these early days on tour, he will only continue to improve.

Such a difficult defeat places Djokovic’s career at an interesting point. This is by no means a release of the torch; Djokovic won the first two grand slams of the year with relative ease. Over the past four years, Alcaraz is only the second player outside the big three to defeat Djokovic in a complete match at a grand slam tournament, after Daniil Medvedev in the final of the 2021 US Open.

Even after being blown out in straight sets by Medvedev, it is doubtful that Djokovic left New York believing he had met his match. On Sunday, however, the players competed as equals. Djokovic certainly didn’t play his best tennis, wasting a crucial set point in the second set tie-break and an early break point in the fifth set, but in the end he was right there. Had Alcaraz betrayed any hint of excitement, the 23-time Grand Slam title winner would have bolted.

Instead, the 20-year-old offered a display of outrageous shooting in the defining game of his career so far. He followed up a curious drop-shot-lob combination with a lunging backhand volley winner after a nice Djokovic passing shot, before slamming the door with a nice serve. “I thought I returned very well the last match, but he just came with some amazing, amazing shots,” Djokovic said.

That another worthy rival has finally risen to join Djokovic at the top table could actually be helpful to the longevity of his career; a career that has been defined by rivals pushing him to new levels. Winning is always welcome, but after so long in the game, the novelty of continuing to dominate lesser opponents would surely wear off at some point. Now, while the 36-year-old remains in top form, he has the motivation to try to thwart a generational talent for as long as he can. – Guardian

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