If Carlos Alcaraz had been more patient, maybe he could have just waited for Novak Djokovic to disappear. At 20, Alcaraz is 16 years younger than the great champion, and the day will probably come when Djokovic is either retired or in decline, and Alcaraz can claim the tennis kingdom as his own.
But Alcaraz never showed any inclination to wait. When he won the United States Open in September at 19 years 129 days, he became the youngest male player to reach the No. 1 ranking, and he was the second youngest, behind Pete Sampras at 19 years 28 days, to win that tournament in the Open era. Djokovic was absent from that event.
Now, with one more win, he would become the fifth male player in the Open era to win more than one Grand Slam tournament title before his 21st birthday. What better way to do it than to grab it now, straight from Djokovic’s steely grip? In boxing, it is said that to capture the crown, you must convincingly beat the champion, and Sunday’s Wimbledon men’s singles final could be the grass-court equivalent of a 15-round heavyweight.
It features a potential matchup between Alcaraz, who defeated Daniil Medvedev, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, in his semifinal on Friday, against Djokovic, who also dispatched Jannik Sinner in straight sets. It’s No. 1 versus No. 2 — the 23-time Grand Slam winner, who is 7-1 in Wimbledon finals, against a young Spaniard playing in his first.
It is also a web developer’s dream, a premier matchup that will determine whether Djokovic extends his record of 23 Grand Slam tournament titles by winning his fifth consecutive Wimbledon trophy, or whether the strong newcomer overcomes past nerves to ascend the throne.
Alcaraz wants it now, and he wants to do it against Djokovic with millions of people watching – not against a lesser-known player like Casper Ruud, his opponent in the US Open final, which was a largely one-sided affair.
“It’s more special to play a final against a legend of our sport,” Alcaraz said. “If I win, it will be amazing for me, not only to win a Wimbledon title, but to do it against Novak. I always say, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
Alcaraz and Djokovic have met only twice on court, and each has won. Alcaraz took a best-of-three match on clay at the 2022 Madrid Masters. Djokovic’s victory was perhaps more remarkable. It was in the semifinals at the French Open last month, a match that included a second set of remarkable tennis. But then Alcaraz started cramping all over his body. At first it was assumed that it was due to heat or lack of fluids. But Alcaraz admitted that it was from nerves.
He managed to play through it, but a match that was developing into a classic soon deflated into a gentle cruise for Djokovic, who went on to win the French Open, his second major title of the year.
“He doesn’t do anything wrong on the court,” Alcaraz said. “Physically he is an animal. Mentally he is an animal.”
Alcaraz promised on Friday, after he kicked Medvedev off the court, that he would use brain exercises to cope with the pressure, and he did not fear a repeat of his last encounter with Djokovic. But when he steps into that Center Court coliseum in front of an audience hungry for some history, all the intellectual games and self-assured mantras might be worthless, especially against a player of Djokovic’s talent, determination and experience.
Sunday will be unlike anything Alcaraz has experienced, even in his previous major final, against Ruud. Djokovic will be playing in his 35th major tournament final. In Alcaraz’s mind, Djokovic might as well be taking out the trash.
“For Novak, it’s one more day, one more moment,” Alcaraz said. “For me, it will be the best moment of my life, I think.”
One element of intrigue goes back a few days, to when Alcaraz’s father was spotted filming Djokovic while he was training. Alcaraz dismissed the notion that he could gain any competitive advantage from it. All the video evidence he needs of Djokovic’s tactics and tendencies is easily accessible from Djokovic’s eight previous Wimbledon finals that have been shown on television.
When Alcaraz was asked about the matter at a press conference, it was presented as a gotcha moment. But he didn’t hide it.
“Oh, it’s probably true,” he said. “My father is a big fan of tennis. He not only watches my matches. I think he enters the club at 11, leaves at 10 p.m., watching matches, watching everyone’s practice. Able to watch Djokovic in the real life, yes, it’s probably true that he filmed the sessions.”
More important than the practical courts is what happens on Central Court. Alcaraz certainly looked ready on Friday, using his combination of a powerful forehand and deft backhand slices to outlast Medvedev, who won both and lost to both.
“Interesting match,” Medvedev mused. “We can’t say who will win for sure.”
We can say that the winner will be one of the two best in the world.