No. 1 Match of ‘23: Alcaraz rapidly ‘grows up’ in conquering Djokovic for Wimbledon title

December 17, 2023

The ATP’s two best players pushed each other to their physical and mental limits in a magnificent one-day celebration of the sport on Centre Court

No. 1 Match of ‘23: Alcaraz rapidly ‘grows up’ in conquering Djokovic for Wimbledon title

“I grew up a lot since that moment in the French Open,” Carlos Alcaraz said after beating Novak Djokovic in the best match of 2023, and one of the best matches of all time, in the Wimbledon final.

“That moment” - when he cramped during a semifinal defeat to Djokovic at Roland Garros - had occurred just five weeks earlier. If anything, though, the Spaniard was being modest. He grew up a lot in the five hours it took him to conquer Djokovic on Centre Court. When he walked in at 2:00 P.M., he was a student of the Grand Slam master across the net. When he walked out at 7:00 P.M., he was the first new Wimbledon men’s champion in 10 years.

Alcaraz began the match by revealing a flaw: His tendency to fight fire with more fire. When Djokovic pushed him early, he tried too hard to push back.

He shanked a forehand at break point, drilled a backhand into the net to go down a second break, and lost a 29-shot rally. The Serb, 16 years older, was still a step ahead.

Until he wasn’t.

The change in the second-set tiebreaker. Djokovic, legendary for locking down at crunch time, had won his last 15 breakers. At 5-5, he knifed a backhand past Alcaraz to reach set point for a two-set lead. He hadn’t lost from that position at a major in 13 years. Then something unbelievable happened: He netted two routine backhands. When Alcaraz hit a backhand return winner at set point, he was alive.

“Just two very poor backhands. That’s it. The match shifted to his side,” Djokovic said.

“If I would have lost that set, probably I couldn’t lift the trophy,” Alcaraz agreed.

In the third, Alcaraz shifted his mindset in a Djokovichian direction. He didn’t give anything away, including the mind-bending, body-destroying fifth game, which lasted 32 points and 27 minutes, and which Alcaraz won on his seventh break point. Two games later, a temporarily annihilated Djokovic retreated to the locker room for seven minutes.

To no one’s surprise, he came back and quickly turned things around.

“I managed to regroup and regain the momentum midway in the fourth,” Djokovic said. “That was my chance.”

In the fifth, two points shifted the match one last time.

The first came with Alcaraz serving at 1-1, break point. Djokovic worked the rally to his advantage, had a high volley that he could have put away, but he netted it instead. Alcaraz held.

In the next game, Alcaraz earned a break point. Again they rallied, again Djokovic had the advantage, again he couldn’t finish. His approach sat up and Alcaraz hammered a backhand pass - to the disgust of Djokovic, who smashed his racquet into the net post.

Half an hour later, Alcaraz served for the trophy at 5-4. The 60 winners, the great gets and jaw-dropping shots: None of it would matter if he couldn’t hold here. Djokovic had been winning this type of match since Alcaraz was a toddler. Could the student close out the master?

After falling behind 0-15, he gave us our answer when he completed the bravest combination imaginable: A drop shot, followed by a winning topspin lob. At championship point, Alcaraz made a first serve, then ran forward to knock off what would surely be the winning forehand. This time, for once, he didn’t try for the spectacular. He made sure it was just good enough to keep Djokovic from returning it.

“Probably before this match, I thought that I wasn’t ready to beat Djokovic in five sets, an epic match like this,” Alcaraz said. “Didn’t get down, didn’t give up. I fought until the last ball.”

“What a match today to be part of,” Djokovic said, recognizing how special it was even in defeat. “I hope everyone enjoyed it.”

At the time, this final seemed to mark a changing of the guard. Now we know better. Djokovic would pick himself up and win 19 straight matches and the US Open, while Alcaraz wouldn’t win another title all year.

Rather than a harbinger, the match now feels like a one-day celebration of the sport. All of its elements will stay in the mind’s eye of everyone who watched. The sun-filled, tension-filled Centre Court. The royalty, Spanish and English, young and old, rooting like hardcore fans. The world’s two best players pushing each to their physical and mental limits. The sight of a raw young athlete becoming a champion. –

No. 1 Match of ‘23: Alcaraz rapidly ‘grows up’ in conquering Djokovic for Wimbledon title