Life constantly presses the refresh button. It challenges the strongest, most talented, most successful to maintain their lofty place in the public’s perception.
Didn't get down, didn't give up. I fought until the last ball. Every ball, I think we made great rallies, great points. It was long, long match, long sets. I think was the mental part that allow me to stay there during the five sets.” Carlos Alcaraz
It is testament to the Big Three in tennis to have been able to retain their spot – bar mainly a challenge by Britain’s Andy Murray – for two decades, amassing 65 Grand Slam singles titles between them in an era rated the greatest in the sport’s history. Up until 18.52 Sunday, 16th July 2023 when Carlos Alcaraz fell to the grass surface clutching his face having defeated Novak Djokovic to lift his first Wimbledon title against the seven-time winner in five sets over nearly five hours on Centre Court. The 20-year-old who celebrated at the Champions Dinner with ladies’ winner Marketa Vondrousova wearing a tuxedo, a wonky black bowtie and the widest of smiles.
Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Djokovic will always be remembered for creating two decades in which they were able to rewrite the history books.
Federer, now being retired, is helpless to build on the legacy of the trio which bestrode the sport like no other for so long.
Of course, Nadal, the winner of 22 major titles, might yet come back for a final year of glory in 2024 to challenge his Spanish compatriot Alcaraz after being sidelined through injury this year.
And Djokovic has been playing what John McEnroe described as the best tennis of his life even at the age of 36 going into the latest decider for the most coveted trophy in tennis. And has already thrown down the gauntlet that he would love to face the 20-year-old who took the Serb’s London SW19 crown and will defend his own US Open title in New York in the autumn.
Djokovic said: “I hope we get to play in US Open. Why not? I think it’s good for the sport, one and two in the world facing each other in almost a five-hours, five-set thriller. Couldn’t be better for our sport in general, so why not?”
Is your Wimbledon final against Alcaraz the start of a big rivalry? He said: “I would hope so, for my sake! He’s going to be on the tour for quite some time. I don’t know how long I’ll be around. Let’s see. It’s been only three matches that we played against each other. Three really close matches. Two already this year in later stages of Grand Slams.”
But the latest pressing of the refresh button has diluted the Big Three’s position in the game, however small, because of what the new King of Wimbledon did to Djokovic in front of Spain’s King Felipe.
It earned praise from Nadal who said to him on Twitter in a message ended by a Spanish flag and tennis ball emojis: “Congratulations @carlosalcaraz. You have given us immense joy…I am sure that our pioneer in Spanish tennis, Manual Santana, has also been cheering wherever he is…A very strong hug and enjoy the moment, Champion!!! (Alcaraz, who won at Queen’s recently, replying with a typically humble: “Gracias Rafa!!!”)
Djokovic himself agreed with Alcaraz’s coach Juan Carlos Ferrero and perhaps others that the new Spanish prodigy has a bit of each of the Big Three.
He said: “I think people have been talking in the past 12 months or so about his game consisting of certain elements from Roger, Rafa, and myself. I would agree with that. I think he’s got basically the best of all three worlds.
“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 have got some similarities with my backhands. Yeah, two-handed backhands, defence, being able to adapt. I think that has been my personal strength for many years. He has it, too.
“I haven’t played a player like him ever, to be honest. Roger and Rafa obviously have their own strengths and weaknesses. Carlos is very complete player. Amazing adapting capabilities that I think are a key for longevity and for a successful career.
“I must say he surprised me, surprised everyone 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. Obviously him coming from clay, having the kind of style that he has.
“I think Queen’s helped him a lot. He was close to lose that first match, opening match, in Queen’s. Then he started to gain momentum, more and more wins against really good players. Wimbledon courts are slower than Aorangi 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. He’s playing some fantastic tennis on different surfaces and he deserves to be where he is. He’s proven that he’s the best player in the world, no doubt.”
Federer, a boyhood hero of Alcaraz who had pinned a picture up on his bedroom wall growing up, has been more circumspect.
When it was suggested Alcaraz was a hybrid of the Big Three he said: “(His coach) said that? It’s a lot to live up to. I always don’t like to put too much pressure on younger players, especially like, ‘He’s going to do this.’ But he’s the type of player who says, ‘Well, I’m coming to Wimbledon, I’m coming to win. I’m coming to Paris, I’m coming to win’.”
But it seems all three have been impressed by the youngster who has triumphed at Wimbledon in just his fourth tournament on grass.
They aren’t the only ones. Murray was the last player to defeat Djokovic on Centre Court when winning the first of two Wimbledon titles in 2013. And the Scot, who witnessed the latest decider courtside, championed the Spaniard before beating him at Indian Wells two years ago.
Former world No.1 Murray said in the Daily Express in 2021: “He is already a fantastic player but he’s got bags of potential. I think there are a few guys that can obviously get there but just from watching him, I don’t see many flaws for a young player. He’s got all the tools to be at the top of the game very soon. I think physically he’s extremely strong and moves great around the court. He obviously plays well on the clay and on the hard courts which isn’t the case for all the young guys.
“He’s got a big game and I think he’s got a good attitude. I spoke a little bit to his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero about him and he said he’s a good worker and he loves tennis and is very humble and stuff but believes in himself a lot.
“I think that from watching him and then chatting to the guy who’s coaching him who obviously has got a lot of experience up at the top of the game (Ferrero was world No.1). They would be the reasons I think he will be world No.1. There are no guarantees, but I would say he’s got the ability potentially to get there.”
Tim Henman, the four-time All England semi-finalist and former British No.1, predicted Alcaraz will lead the changing of the guard following his Wimbledon triumph.
He said on the BBC: “It is huge. We are looking for the future generations in the sport. There have been incredible ambassadors for our sport, and when you talk about the role models really trying to influence the younger generation, we’ve been spoiled in both the men’s and the women’s game. Carlos Alcaraz is going to be fantastic to lead the way in men’s tennis going forward.
“It was an extraordinary final. Alcaraz was really able to come through in that fifth set when he had the opportunity to come up to the line and serve it out. He finished like a true champion. I am really confident this will not be his only Wimbledon title.”
Pat Cash, the 1987 champion, believes Alcaraz is poised to dominate the game He said: “Who’s going to match this kid for the next few years? It’s hard to see anybody.”
Former world No.1 Mats Wilander reckoned Alcaraz will stay at the top. The Swede said: “Once you love this tournament and love the grass, you are going to be coming back and feeling like you can win it every year. I think we are seeing a multiple Wimbledon champion before our eyes right now. Alcaraz is a complete player at 20 years old.”
Speaking on Eurosport, he added: “It is going to be incredible what he achieves because the final was maybe the best Wimbledon match in terms of its level that I have ever seen.”
Former doubles champion Todd Woodbridge said on the BBC: “It’s a changing of the guard. Tennis is really lucky, we have had some amazing champions. Novak Djokovic is included in that, but when you have had Roger and Rafa, who, as sportsmen, are a gift to your sport.
“I think this young man is also a gift to our sport with the attitude he brings, the competitive spirt, and the sportsmanship, the smile. They are such important attributes for a career.”
Ferrero spoke of Alcaraz’s adaption to grass and tactics as well as the champion’s courage.
He said to Eurosport: “It’s very difficult to say (how swiftly he has become attuned), I think he takes things on board very quickly, and we’ve also seen a lot of videos of players that move very quickly here. So, we copied a little of Murray, Roger and Novak, and he tries to copy a little bit the same. In the end, it wasn’t easy, but we did it.
“We said that he would have to play more or less the same level that he played against (Daniil) Medvedev, (in the semi-final). Medvedev is on the baseline all the time and Carlos likes to use the slice to bring the opponent to the net. That was something we needed to do against Novak, so it was one of the keys to break his rhythm. In the end, I think he was very brave in the way he finished the match.”
Ferrero insisted his charge would have downtime before New York.
Ferrero said: “He’s going to have some rest to reset a little bit and go to the United States feeling powerful and fresh again. I think we’ve learnt a lot of things after the US Open, so we have to do things a little bit differently here. He and the team know this, and I think we are ready to do things a little bit better.”
And what did Alcaraz think of it all?
He said: “Changing of the guard? Well, I did it for myself, not for tennis generation, honestly. It was great. Beating Novak at his best, in this stage, making history, being the guy to beat him after ten years unbeaten on that court, is amazing for me.
“It’s something that I will never forget, that’s for sure. As I said, it’s great for the new generation, as well, I think to see me beating him and making them think that they are capable to do it, as well. It’s great for me and I think for the young players, as well.”
On Djokovic saying he is a mix of Nadal, Federer and himself, he added: “It’s crazy that Novak say that, honestly. But I consider myself a really complete player. I think I have the shots, the strength physically, the strength mentally enough to deal with these situations.
“I don’t know. Probably he’s right. But I don’t want to think about it. I going to think that I’m full Carlos Alcaraz, let’s say, but probably I have some great ability from every player.”
Alcaraz, who cramped up with nerves in losing his French Open semi-final against eventual champion Djokovic, believes he has learned more about himself from beating him. He said: “Probably that I’m really capable of doing the things that I did (in the final). Probably before this match, I thought that I wasn’t ready to beat Djokovic in five sets, an epic match like this. Stay good physically or good mentally about five hours against a legend, probably I learned about myself. I think different about Novak in the way that probably in other tournaments, in other Grand Slams, I will remember this moment. I will think that I’m ready to play five sets against him, good rallies, good sets, really long, long match, and stay there physically, mentally, in tennis, in general.
“I am totally different player than French Open. I grew up a lot since that moment. I learned a lot from that. I prepared a little bit different mentally before the match. I could deal with the pressure, the nerves, better than I did in French Open.
“Obviously on grass is different than on clay. But I’m really happy to be able to stay there. Didn’t get down, didn’t give up. I fought until the last ball. Every ball, I think we made great rallies, great points. It was long, long match, long sets. I think was the mental part that allow me to stay there during the five sets.”