Carlos Alcaraz skipped the line.
So often in sports, before a team or athlete has their big breakthrough, you hear about paying dues, getting playoff reps, failure before success; the old Michael-Jordan-having-to-get-past-the-Pistons analogy. But, sometimes, real greatness isn’t that patient.
At 20-years-old, Alcaraz is already a two-time Grand Slam champion and, in 2022, became the youngest world No. 1 in the history of men’s tennis. When a meteoric rise like this occurs, stats and superlatives start popping up like weeds in an untended yard, but none illustrate the progress better than this: in the history of men’s tennis, only two grand slams have been won by ‘90s born players. Two.
Alcaraz, born in 2003, already has two slams himself. This means 13 years of players – probably 3-4 generations, in tennis time – have played their entire career without sniffing a grand slam trophy. Daniil Medvedev, one of the ‘90s generation who has broken through, lost decisively to Carlos Alcaraz in this year’s Wimbledon semifinal (6-3, 6-3, 6-3).
Upon first watching Alcaraz, with his electric movement, soft touch, rocket forehand, and silky dropshot, it was almost impossible not to put the cart ahead of the horse. In the same way Victor Wembanyama’s best case scenario might look like the near-impossible-to-live-up-to comparisons of Kevin Durant combined with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Alcaraz’s game truly does have major pieces of the Big Three who have dominated tennis the last 20 years.
This graphic was ahead of its time pic.twitter.com/puLLApMuqg— Bastien Fachan (@BastienFachan) July 16, 2023
And it’s not just social media hype. Listen to Novak Djokovic, who Alcaraz defeated (1-6, 7-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4) Sunday to capture his first Wimbledon title, speak on these exact themes.
'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 best of all three worlds'— Bastien Fachan (@BastienFachan) July 16, 2023
Incredible praise from Djokovic to Alcaraz pic.twitter.com/uIgka6O4A6
When the greatest player of all-time is talking about a 20-year-old phenom like an algebra problem to solve, you know we’ve found lightning thrashing around the bottle. Alcaraz is now 2-1 against Djokovic, with the one loss coming during a French Open where the Spaniard suffered from cramps. He is a conundrum. Now. For the elite and everyman alike. Djokovic doesn’t lose on Centre Court. Djokovic doesn’t lose tiebreakers. Djokovic doesn’t lose after winning the first set. Well, against Alcaraz, these historical sure things may no longer be the case.
Already a decorated clay court player and slam champ on hard court, the one semi-nitpick in Alcaraz’s game was grass. Alcaraz fell in round two at Wimbledon in 2021 before inching closer and ending his 2022 run in the round of 16. Few doubted it could or even would happen, but how long would it take? The surface requires some navigation, and the season comes as quickly as it goes. Only Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic have won Wimbledon in the last 20 years. You don’t just fluke your way into a title on Centre Court.
In 2023, Alcaraz made the surface his own. The Spaniard won the title on grass at Queen’s Club over Alex de Minaur, an Aussie ranked No. 18 and a great mover in his own right. After doing more of the same en route to the Wimbledon final — dropping only two sets in six matches against a difficult draw featuring two Top 10 players and a former tournament finalist in Matteo Berrettini — the final boss was waiting.
While Djokovic was content to play behind the baseline and model his game more after a wall, the young Spaniard displayed the tools to hit with him, move with him, and, most crucially, add the extra gear of winners and jaw-dropping shots to take the evenly played points, shake them out of their complacency, and decisively end them – on his terms.
For Djokovic, a 23-time Grand Slam champion, it had to feel like getting punched in the face by your own reflection. Does this look like a man who, at the time, had a 10-year winning streak on Centre Court?
The all-time greats tend to bring strong reactions out of fans and players alike, and Alcaraz is no different. He had fellow ATP players tweeting like young juniors.
Alcaraz is a freak— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) July 16, 2023
LEGENDS. What a final These guys keep raising the level!!! https://t.co/fEvOetnigi— Denis Shapovalov (@denis_shapo) July 16, 2023
That’s Dennis Shapovalov, 24-years-old and ranked No. 23 in the world, calling a player four years younger a legend. With an 0-1 record against Alcaraz, he’s also gotten a taste for himself.
With the bar set this high, the natural discourse question is how many slams can he win from here. Pete Sampras’ total of 14 was the bar for the Big Three, and all of them ended up eclipsing it and getting to 20 or more. John McEnroe, commentating on the match yesterday, would not be pinned down to a number, and, at first, it came off like maybe not wanting to be too flippant about what it would take to get to those heights. Thinking on it one day later, maybe what he really wanted to avoid was putting a ceiling on someone who could be there long enough to play with his opponent’s son.
Alcaraz with Djokovic's son pic.twitter.com/0CUCg5wAGs— Bastien Fachan (@BastienFachan) July 16, 2023
They’re closer in age than him and Novak— Griffin Beers (@griffin_beers2) July 16, 2023
McEnroe added he just wanted to see Alcaraz healthy going forward, as injuries could be the only real threat to derail this fireworks show poised to take over the tour for the next however many years he is interested in playing. For what it’s worth, he seems to have the right people around him. Juan Carlos Ferrero, former world No. 1 and French Open champ, began coaching Alcaraz at age 16. On Sunday, he saw his mentee pass his career slam total already.
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words… pic.twitter.com/fuhNbsta6z— Gaspar Ribeiro Lança (@gasparlanca) July 16, 2023
He probably wasn’t all that upset about it.