Monday, September 25, 2023
    HomeSportHow Carlos Alcaraz tamed ‘lion’ Novak Djokovic to be crowned Wimbledon champion

    How Carlos Alcaraz tamed ‘lion’ Novak Djokovic to be crowned Wimbledon champion

    In more than a decade, 45 players had failed to beat Novak Djokovic on Centre Court. The most recent one to manage it was Andy Murray, in the Wimbledon final on July 7, 2013. 

    For 34 consecutive matches, the Serbian had not lost on any of the courts at the All England Club, lifting the trophy in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 (the event was not played in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic), and reaching 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 past 15 tie-breaks in those three tournaments.

    Oh, and there was the small matter of the 23 grand slam titles in his locker and everything those experiences have taught him. 

    On Sunday, however, he lost a tie-break and lost three sets — and with it, he lost his Wimbledon title.

    Carlos Alcaraz is different. 

    Different to all those players who tried and failed to stop Djokovic here, and different to anyone who has come before him. You don’t need to trust me on that; I’ll pass you over to Djokovic. 

    “I haven’t played a player like him ever, to be honest.”

    A world No 1 at age 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 is also the third youngest male champion at Wimbledon since tennis went professional in 1968, after Boris Becker (1985) and Bjorn Borg (1976). 

    B.C (Before Carlos), no player since Djokovic was born in May 1987 had won the Wimbledon men’s title. 

    On the 78 previous occasions that Djokovic had taken the first set of a match at Wimbledon, he went on to win. 

    Not today.

    So, how did Alcaraz tame the player he had described as a “lion” before Sunday’s final?

    Well, he got at 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 over the five sets, after Djokovic had only lost three service games in his six matches en route to the main event. 

    (Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

    The most painful break for Djokovic will have been the fifth game of the third set. Already one break up, Alcaraz just would not yield in a mammoth 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 at which Alcaraz has mastered grass is absurd. He had only played three tournaments on it before this Wimbledon. In his two previous visits here he had never got past the fourth round, and now he’s 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, and won all 12. 

    So, what changed? Maximising his playing time at Queen’s and Wimbledon will have certainly helped. “Every time that I get out to the court playing, it’s better for me,” he said after winning that west London warm-up event last month. “I get more experience, that is really, really important on that surface.”

    Alcaraz has become more acquainted with the low bounce, the occasionally dodgy one, and has been able to transfer his speed from the game’s clay and hard courts onto turf. That has proven 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 because of his confidence and recovery speed. 

    (Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

    Two months out of his teens, he has become as good on grass as he is on clay and on hard courts. Djokovic, 36, nodded to that on Centre Court after the match: “I thought I’d have trouble with you on hard courts and on clay but not on grass…”

    And later on, the deposed champion expanded on it. “I must 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 that he played. 

    “I think Queen’s helped him a lot. He was close to losing that opening match in Queen’s (Alcaraz needed all three sets to beat world No 82 Arthur Rinderknech 4-6, 7-5, 7-6). Then he started to gain momentum, 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. It’s more suitable for, I guess, the baseliners like he is.

    “I must say the slices, the kind of chipping returns, the net play; it’s very impressive. I didn’t expect him to play so well this year on grass, but he’s proven that he’s the best player in the world, no doubt.

    “He’s playing some fantastic tennis on different surfaces and he deserves to be where he is.”

    When asked by The Athletic earlier in the tournament what was the hardest thing about facing Djokovic, Alcaraz, who lost in four sets to him a month ago in the French Open semi-finals, said: “Well, the pressure. I would say the pressure that he puts on everyone — not only me, everyone — to play at their best for about three hours in a grand slam. 

    “I have to deal with that, but it is something that I really want. I hope to play a final here against him. For me, this probably is the toughest thing facing Novak.”

    On Sunday, Alcaraz would have loved for it to be over in three hours. In reality, they battled it out for four hours, and then another 42 minutes. But that pressure he spoke of earlier in the fortnight certainly didn’t get to him.

    “Credit to Carlos,” said Djokovic. “Amazing poise in the important moments. For someone of his age to handle the nerves like this, be playing attacking tennis, and to close out the match the way he did… I thought I returned very well that last game, but he was just coming up with some amazing, amazing shots.”

    One of the best examples of that poise and fearlessness came in the second set tie-break. With the Centre Court crowd chanting his name before the decisive point, the Spaniard fizzed an outrageous backhand winner past Djokovic to level at one set all. The atmosphere was electric and he lapped up the applause, putting a finger to his ear as he strode over to his seat. 

    Then he maintained that momentum, breaking Djokovic immediately in the opening game of the third set, which put him in a great position by the time that game happened.

    The entirety of the first set had lasted 34 minutes; the fifth game of the third set lasted 26. Alcaraz broke again and went 4-1 up. After his investment to win that game, the rest of that set felt like a formality. The 6-1 scoreline inflicted on Djokovic is not a familiar one. In his 71-tournament grand slam career, it has only happened 13 times. 

    The fourth set was one to forget for Alcaraz, Djokovic taking it 6-3, but he regrouped in the fifth set and was now fully locked in. There were some bullet forehands to hold at 1-0 down and in the next game, he broke courtesy of three winners. Then he held to love for 3-1, finishing that game with an ace. He did the same at the end of his service games to go 4-2 and 5-3 up. Then there were two brilliant winners as he served for the match. 

    Alcaraz kept his head when those around him were losing theirs. In particular, two moments stand out. A Djokovic backhand into the net at set point in the second set’s tie-break. Then, a point later, another weak backhand into the net provided Alcaraz with a break point. He duly did the business.  

    “I would say tie-break in the second (was my biggest regret in the match),” said Djokovic. “The backhands kind of let me down, to be honest. Set point, I missed the backhand. He did play a backhand that was quite long in the court, had a little bit of a bad bounce. But I should not have missed that shot.

    “Then on 6-6, again, another backhand from middle of the court in the net. Just two very poor backhands. That’s it. The match shifted to his side. It turned around. He just raised his level so much in the third. I wasn’t myself for quite some time.”

    There was also a very costly missed drive volley when Djokovic had break point at 1-0 up in the final set. 

    “I managed to regroup and regain the momentum midway in the fourth. I felt that the momentum shifted to my side. That was my chance (the drive volley early in the fifth). That was my opportunity,” Djokovic said. “That break point, I think I played a really good point, kind of 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 kind of falling back. I saw him perfectly running to the opposite corner. I kind of wanted to wrong-foot him with that drive volley, and I missed.”

    (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

    Alcaraz broke in the next game, and then served out for the match and championship. That break of serve that followed his miss so infuriated Djokovic that he wrapped his racket around the net post. 

    At times on Centre Court, it was like that Spider-Man meme — Djokovic must have felt like he was playing against himself. There were similar shots, similar movements, a similar I-will-never-ever-ever-stop-running mentality.

    “I think people have been talking in the past 12 months or so about Carlos’ game consisting of certain elements from Roger (Federer), Rafa (Nadal), and myself. I would agree with that. I think he’s got basically the best of all three worlds,” said Djokovic.

    “He’s got this mental resilience and real maturity for someone who is 20 years old. It’s quite impressive. He’s got this Spanish-bull mentality of competitiveness and fighting spirit and incredible defence that we’ve seen with Rafa over the years.

    “And I think he’s got some nice sliding backhands that he’s got some similarities with my backhands. Yeah, two-handed backhands, defence, being able to adapt. I think that has been my strength for many years. He has it, too.

    (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

    “I haven’t played a player like him ever, to be honest. Roger and Rafa have their own strengths and weaknesses. Carlos is a very complete player; amazing adapting capabilities that I think are a key for longevity and for a successful career on all surfaces.”

    Is this a changing of the guard? We shall see, it certainly felt pretty seismic sitting on Centre Court and watching Alcaraz go toe to toe with Djokovic and emerge with the Wimbledon trophy.

    (Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)



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