If Carlos Alcaraz were more patient, perhaps he could just wait for Novak Djokovic to fade away. At 20, Alcaraz is 16 years younger than the great champion, and the day is likely to come when Djokovic is either retired or in decline, and Alcaraz can claim the tennis kingdom as his own.
But Alcaraz has never demonstrated an 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, after 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 out of Djokovic’s steely grip? In boxing, it is said that to capture the crown, one must convincingly vanquish the champ, and Sunday’s Wimbledon men’s singles final could be the grass court equivalent of a 15-round heavyweight bout.
It features a potentially riveting matchup between Alcaraz, who defeated Daniil Medvedev, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, in their semifinal on Friday, against Djokovic, who also dismissed Jannik Sinner in straight sets. It is No. 1 against No. 2 — the 23-time Grand Slam tournament winner, who is 7-1 in Wimbledon finals, against a young Spaniard playing in his first.
It is also a network programmer’s dream, a premier matchup that will determine whether Djokovic will extend his record of 23 Grand Slam tournament titles by winning his fifth consecutive Wimbledon trophy, or whether the heavy-hitting 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 U.S. Open final, which was a mostly 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 telling. It was in a semifinal at the French Open last month, a match that included a second set of remarkable tennis. But then Alcaraz began to cramp up across his entire body. First it was assumed it was from heat or a lack of fluids. But Alcaraz admitted it was from nerves.
He managed to play through it, but a match that had been 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 does nothing wrong on the court,” Alcaraz said. “Physically he’s a beast. Mentally he’s a beast.”
Alcaraz promised on Friday, after he had run Medvedev off the court, that he would employ brain exercises to cope with the pressure, and he did not fear a repeat of his last encounter with Djokovic. But when he walks into that Centre Court coliseum in front of an audience thirsting for some sort of history, all of the intellectual games and self-assuring mantras could be worthless, especially against a player of Djokovic’s talent, determination and experience.
Sunday will be unlike anything Alcaraz has experienced, even in his one 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 is one more day, one more moment,” Alcaraz said. “For me, it’s going to 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 videotaping Djokovic as he practiced. 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, which were shown on television.
When Alcaraz was asked about the matter at a news conference, it was presented as a gotcha moment. But he did not hide it.
“Oh, probably it is true,” he said. “My father is a huge fan of tennis. He doesn’t only watch my matches. I think he get into the club at 11 a.m., get out at 10 p.m., watching matches, watching practice from everyone. Able to watch Djokovic in real life, yeah, probably it is true he filmed the sessions.”
More important than the practice courts is what happens on Centre Court. Alcaraz certainly looked ready on Friday, using his combination of overwhelming forehand and deft backhand slices to outlast Medvedev, who has beaten both and has lost to both.
“Interesting match,” Medvedev mused. “We cannot say who is going to win for sure.”
We can say that the winner will be one of the two best in the world.