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Wimbledon 2023: Carlos Alcaraz is a heartwarming champion capable of eclipsing Novak Djokovic

Wimbledon 2023: Carlos Alcaraz is a heartwarming champion capable of eclipsing Novak Djokovic

Eyebrows were raised when Carlos Alcaraz began the grasscourt season admitting he had been mentally and physically broken by Novak Djokovic at the French Open.

The pair's semi-final on the clay was billed by many as the moment for a changing of the guard, only for the young Spaniard to crumble.

It was almost like an admission of defeat to Djokovic going into Wimbledon, but it proved anything but. Instead, the 20-year-old saw it as a turning and learning point, the mistakes made never to be repeated.

Centre Court — essentially Fortress Djokovic where the Serbian had not lost in 10 years — did not feel like the place for that changing of the guard to finally happen either. And when Djokovic cruised 6-1 to a first set, all the numbers suggested a 24th grand slam was in the offing. After all, he had never lost at Wimbledon after winning the opening set — 78 matches in all.

And yet it was Djokovic who eventually wilted, defeated and deflated by a performance of remarkable guts and maturity by Alcaraz, who simply refused to falter on tennis's biggest stage.

Just two months out of his teenage years, he is a remarkably fast learner. You could see notable improvements in every match at both Queen's, the warm-up tournament he also won, and Wimbledon. He saved his best for the final — and needed to.

The four hours and 42 minutes of epic tennis felt like a seismic shift. As the match wore on, Djokovic increasingly lost his cool, hammering his racket into a net post and rushing his service game, unlike his measured self earlier in the match.

And there were points where he stood rooted to the grass after Alcaraz drop shots, beaten not just by his opponent's brilliance, but also physically finally beginning to feel those 36 years in his legs.

Both the trophy and the honours board at the All England Club have a different name aside from Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray on them for the first time in 21 years.

The winning moment. (Getty Images)
The winning moment. (Getty Images)

Others in the younger generation have threatened to be the one to break out, but neither Stefanos Tsitsipas nor Alexander Zverev have managed to win a grand slam, while Daniil Medvedev has been unable to repeat his 2021 US Open win over Djokovic.

That potential shift in tennis time and stature proved unwarranted, not so with Alcaraz. Ominously for Djokovic and the rest, he is far from the finished article, his mastery of the grass far from complete.

This was his weakest surface and he was playing, arguably, the best there had ever been on it. The speed with which he adapted to the surface took everyone by surprise, Alcaraz and Djokovic included. One wonders how different things might have been had he not come through that first-round battle at Queen's against Arthur Rinderknech which went the distance; how different the self-belief coming into Wimbledon.

Djokovic may not be to everyone's liking, but he was the most gracious of losers, warmly congratulating his opponent at the net in the immediate aftermath and full of praise in interviews on and off court.

He did, though, admit: "I didn't expect him to play so well this year on grass, but he's proven that he's the best player in the world, no doubt. He's playing some fantastic tennis on different surfaces and he deserves to be where he is."

It is hard to predict what might be possible, but it is not unthinkable that Alcaraz could get in among the record books when it comes to grand slam titles in the future.

It would take the coldest of hearts to not warm to him, with those running forehands, fist-pumping, roaring celebrations and the joy with which he plays the game. And there is an easy charm, too. Wearing his bucket hat in the post-match press conference, he looked more as though he belonged at Glastonbury just a few weeks earlier than here.

It would be wrong to say that Djokovic is a spent force. He had won the first two grand slams of the year and there had been talk of equalling Margaret Court's record of 24 grand slam singles titles and the calendar slam. The latter may now never happen, the former still imminently achievable.

Djokovic dearly loves to prove the naysayers wrong and will get a chance again in just a few weeks' time at the US Open, where the change in vaccination rules means he can return after a hiatus.

On the evidence of this season, it would hard to think of a final other than between the No1 and No2 in the world, as with Wimbledon.

It has the makings of another great rivalry, although for how long, who knows? Djokovic joked, "I would hope so for my sake," of a potentially lengthy head-to-head.

"He's going to be on the tour for quite some time... I don't know how long I'll be around," he said. "One and two in the world facing each other in almost a five-hour, five-set thriller. Couldn't be better for our sport in general, so why not?"