The calm before the storm. The day off between the semi-final and final of the men’s singles at Wimbledon represents such a period. When combatants can prepare for the biggest match in tennis in a relaxed environment surrounded by their team and loved ones.
This is probably the most anticipated finals I guess from the beginning of the tournament, from most of the people. Alcaraz, myself. It will be his first finals in Wimbledon. He's so young, but he's incredibly consistent now, also on grass. I don't think many people expected him to play so well because his game is basically built and constructed and developed for clay mostly or slower hard courts. But he's been incredibly successful in adapting to the surfaces and demands and challenges of opponents on a given day. Novak Djokovic
Among the familiar is an individual who could hold the key for Carlos Alcaraz, 20, defeating reigning champion Novak Djokovic, 36 in Sunday’s decider. The leader of the new generation overcoming the player who has won more Grand Slam titles than any other and creating history every time he steps on a tennis court.
Psychologist Isabel Balaguer is the main individual charged with calming any storm inside Alcaraz’s head for their Centre Court showdown.
Alcaraz has credited her with helping transform him from a racket and tantrum-throwing youngster into a smiling and sporting Grand Slam champion – winning the US Open last autumn – and world No.1.
The Spaniard, who would become the youngest winner of the trophy since compatriot Rafa Nadal in 2006 if successful, said in the Evening Standard: “When I was younger, I was a totally different person. Probably I didn’t enjoy it as I’m enjoying right now. I was always mad, throwing the racket, complaining a lot. It was different. I started to calm myself, control my emotions. I started to enjoy playing tennis, enjoy a lot on the court.”
Alcaraz has been praised for his crowd-pleasing demeanour and complete game and is rated by legend John McEnroe as the best 20-year-old player he has ever seen.
But the still waters of Alcaraz’s mind were still roughed up by playing eventual title winner Djokovic in the French Open semi-finals in Paris this spring.
Alcaraz openly admitted the cramps he suffered during that defeat in their only previous meeting at a major were caused by “tension and nerves”. That he had never experienced such a thing. That it was “really tough”.
You could surmise the occasion got to him, but he sailed through his first All England last-four appearance against Russian world No.3 Daniil Medvedev.
So we are left with the conclusion that it was the Djokovic Effect which did for Alcaraz in the French capital.
Certainly, Alcaraz did little to dissuade anyone from believing that when he said of the Serb: “I grew up watching him. Having the beating all the big guys, Roger (Federer) and Rafa, (Nadal) when he was younger.
“Being the guy he is right now, everything he has been through is amazing. He’s really complete guy, really complete player. He’s amazing. He does nothing wrong on the court. Physically he’s a beast. Mentally he’s a beast. Everything is unbelievable for him. I think it’s a mix of everything that I admire him the most. I have to get deep into tactics (for the final) because Novak has no weakness, so it’s going to be really tough to find the way to be danger for him.”
This is where Balaguer comes in against Djokovic on Sunday in front of 15,000 courtside and millions on television around the globe.
Alcaraz, hoping to become the fourth Spaniard to lift a Wimbledon singles title after Manuel Santana, Conchita Martinez and Rafa Nadal, said: “Well, I try to get into the court with not as much nerves as I probably had in French Open, in the semifinal. I try to pull out all nerves, try to enjoy that moment because probably in the semi-final at the French Open I didn’t enjoy at all in the first set probably.
“I’ll do something different from that match. I prepare the match a little bit different from French Open. It’s going to be different for me. I hope not to get cramp during the final. I think I’ll be better on Sunday.
“Physically I’ll do it the same, what I was doing before the matches. Probably in the mental part I will do something different, to stay calm, to show that I’m not nervous. Some exercise in the mental part.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’ll do some exercise to stay calm and to forget – or I’ll try to forget – that I’m going to play a final against Novak.”
Another crucial figure in his team as he takes on the seven-time champion is coach and mentor Juan Carlos Ferrero, himself a former world No.1.
Alcaraz said in the Standard: “Juan Carlos is a very important person for me. On the professional side, on the personal side, he’s helped me a lot. When we are together, we will talk about everything in life, everything in our sport and about football, as well. Juan Carlos, I consider him a coach and a friend as well. So I can talk to him about everything in my personal life, too.”
Alacaraz might know the size of his task but he will not shrink away from it. As he said after beating Medvedev it is not a time to be afraid. He said: “I talk with my team. We will find a way to win with Novak.”
The fire inside Djokovic burns as bright as it did when he became a professional tennis player 20 years ago.
He might tear up record books as a matter of course. Victory will ensure he equals Roger Federer’s record of eight Wimbledon title and Margaret Court’s overall major triumphs of 24. His mere appearance will put him level with Roger Federer and Bjorn Borg’s record of five successive appearances after seeing off Italian eighth seed Jannik Sinner in the last four. And his 35th Slam final will move him one ahead of Chris Evert at the top of that overall list.
But what motivates him is purely the actual winning of each major. And he views Alcaraz as the “greatest challenge” in tennis going into his latest final.
Djokovic, the second see, said: “It’s an ultimate showdown. Everything comes down to one match. All eyes of the tennis and sports world will be directed on this Sunday’s Wimbledon final. It’s probably the most watched tennis match globally. I look forward to it.
“This is probably the most anticipated finals I guess from the beginning of the tournament, from most of the people. Alcaraz, myself. It will be his first finals in Wimbledon. He’s so young, but he’s incredibly consistent now, also on grass. I don’t think many people expected him to play so well because his game is basically built and constructed and developed for clay mostly or slower hard courts. But he’s been incredibly successful in adapting to the surfaces and demands and challenges of opponents on a given day.
“I see this as a great trait, as a great virtue. I see this as one of my biggest strengths throughout my career, that I was able to constantly develop, adapt, and adjust my game depending on the challenges basically. That’s what he’s doing very early on in his career.
“Kudos to him. Amazing player. Great guy also off the court. He carries himself very, very well. He respects the history of the sport, respects everyone. No bad words about him at all His team, his family.
“I’ve seen him play in Queen’s a little bit. Here he’s been very impressive. I think he already developed a very accurate game on grass.
“I think, judging by the performances that we have seen from all the players, I think this is probably the best finals that we could have. We are both in good form. We’re both playing well.
“I guess I want to take this title without a doubt. I look forward to it. It’s going to be a great challenge, greatest challenge that I could have at the moment from any angle really: physical, mental, emotional.
“He’s one of the quickest guys on the tour. He can do pretty much anything on the court. I consider myself also very complete player.
“We had a very good match until he started struggling physically in Paris. I think we really took the level of tennis very high. I think was great for the audience and great for us players to be part of that.
“Obviously completely different conditions here. Grass is massively different from clay. Yes, I do have more experience playing in many more Grand Slam or Wimbledon finals than him. Experience could help a little bit I think maybe in some important moments, beginning the match, managing the nerves, managing the occasion, circumstances.
“But it’s not going to be the deciding factor really. It’s not going to affect that much on the game itself. So whoever on a given day is in a better state mentally and physically will be the winner.
“He’s in great shape. He’s very motivated. He’s young. He’s hungry. I’m hungry, too, so let’s have a feast.”