Carlos Alcaraz rose to the challenge at Queen’s Club, but can he fend off Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon?

July 2, 2023

Alcaraz’s cinch Championships title took him back to No. 1, showed he’s a quick study on grass, and allayed any concerns after his Paris exit. But he also knows “Novak is coming to Wimbledon.”

Carlos Alcaraz rose to the challenge at Queen’s Club, but can he fend off Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon?

What a difference five days can make in the life, and future outlook, of a tennis player.

On Tuesday, it seemed as if Carlos Alcaraz's first experience at Queen's Club, as well as his preparation for Wimbledon, would be unfortunately brief. He lost the first set of his opening match to 83rd-ranked Arthur Rinderknech, and he wasn't doing much better in the second. This was Alcaraz's third pro grass-court tournament of his career, and it looked like it. After two months on clay, his footwork on this slipperier surface was uncertain, his ground-stroke rhythm was off, and Rinderknech's serve-and-volley pressure wasn't giving him a chance to show off any of his wide range of offensive weapons.

As he struggled to stay in the tournament, I thought about writing a column that would ask the question, "Is it time to rein in our expectations for Carlos Alcaraz?"

For the better part of three years he has widely-and rightly, it seemed-been called the future of men's tennis. By 19, he had already been No. 1, won a major title, and beaten Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. He was the most electric athlete-as a mover and a ball-striker-that many of us had ever seen on a tennis court. But a couple of recent events had made me wonder if the coronation was a little premature.

In Rome, Alcaraz had been drummed out of the tournament by 135th-ranked Fabian Marozsan. More concerning was his performance at Roland Garros, where he had "disappointed" himself, and every sports fan, by cramping up midway through a potentially classic semifinal with Djokovic. Alcaraz obviously has the physical skills to be the next great player, but this loss, which he attributed to the "tension" of the moment, seemed to be evidence that he still has things to learn about managing his emotions, and-as dreary as it may sound-competing with a little less of his customary flair and a little more cold-blooded efficiency. Alcaraz has proven he's a winner, but he can make the journey to victory longer and more arduous than it needs to be.

Still, winning in the end is what matters, and it's what mattered for him in Queen's. On Tuesday, just when it looked like Rinderknech would hand him another surprise defeat, he snuck through in a third-set tiebreaker. From there, Alcaraz quickly found his grass-court feet. In his next four matches, he beat four solid players-Jiri Lehecka, Grigor Dimitrov, Sebastian Korda, and Alex De Minaur-without dropping more than four games in a set.

In the final against De Minaur on Sunday, Alcaraz showed that he has learned to manage a match on this surface, too.

Rather than wait to win points from the baseline, or feather in lots of drop shots the way he usually does, he charged forward and shortened rallies. Alcaraz actually hit fewer winners than De Minaur (15 to 18), but had six more aces and won a higher percentage of first-serve points.

He took the few chances he had, which is a key to grass, going two for two on break points, while De Minaur was zero for two. Alcaraz also leaned on his serve in a way he doesn't need to on clay. Faced with a break point in the first set, he fired a 137-m.p.h. ace. Down 0-30 in the final game of the match and looking tight, he hit four straight serves that De Minaur couldn't get back in the court.

"Right now I'm feeling better than the beginning of the week, that's obvious," said Alcaraz, who reclaimed the top ranking with the win, and will be the No. 1 seed next week at the All England Club. "Recovering the No. 1 ranking before Wimbledon, it gives you extra motivation, it gives you extra confidence."

Was I wrong to wonder whether we should temper our expectations for Alcaraz? This week was a reassuring one. He showed his usual youthful enthusiasm for the challenge of grass, and an ability to adjust to it. He said movement is key for him on the surface, and that he has been watching videos of Roger Federer and Andy Murray and taking notes on their footwork. Djokovic, not so much.

"I'm not talking about Djokovic because Djokovic slides like clay court, and [that's] not my case," he said.

Whether Alcaraz wants to emulate Djokovic or not, he knows he can't get away from him.

"The chances don't change much," Alcaraz said when he was asked about being the top seed next week. "I mean, Novak is coming to Wimbledon."

It's safe to say we can keep our expectations high for Alcaraz's future. As for whether he's already the world's best player, or whether he's changed the ATP guard, or whether he's ready to knock Djokovic off his pedestal? We're not there yet, and Alcaraz knows it as well as anyone. 

Carlos Alcaraz rose to the challenge at Queen’s Club, but can he fend off Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon?