The second, and most recent, time that Alcaraz and Djokovic played each other was in the semifinals of the French Open, last month. They split the first two sets and the match was electric: the two best movers on tour working the ball into impossible places. But in the third set, Alcaraz started to visibly struggle with cramps. He forfeited a game in order to receive treatment and wasn’t competitive from then on, losing in four sets. After the match he attributed the tightness to stress. This was not the great generational confrontation the tennis world had been waiting for.
And there is some evidence that Alcaraz has been anticipating, or perhaps dreading, that great decisive moment. “Look, I don’t want to take credit away from myself,” Alcaraz said after the U.S. Open. “But it’s true that Rafa, Djokovic, Federer, they were in a period when they were all playing. I had the luck or whatever you want to call it that Djokovic could not play.” Whether this is a credit to the young star’s humility or a demonstration that he lacks a champion’s delusion is for you to decide. But it seems clear that he wonders if he can, in fact, eat the world.
Also, yeah, the cramps. They were the latest in a somewhat concerning trend of Alcaraz injuries. Like the great Spaniard he is succeeding, Alcaraz is a grinder who stretches and twists and slides and chases down every ball, and also like Nadal, he has started to receive some unpleasant bodily feedback before reaching American drinking age. An abdominal tear sustained in November 2022 caused him to miss the Australian Open. Post-traumatic arthritis in his left hand and muscular spinal discomfort forced him to withdraw from the Monte Carlo Masters. If Nadal was built like a tank, dense and immovable, Alcaraz is more of a fighter jet, sleek and piercing and dangerous. Both jets and tanks, it should be noted, are frequently damaged beyond repair.
But Nadal played through his injuries to great acclaim for nearly two decades, and Alcaraz may well too. But they may have postponed a true torching of the tour schedule and other high-profile battles with Djokovic at events like the Australian Open and the Tour Finals.
Wimbledon—or this Wimbledon, at least—doesn’t seem like the place where the great changing of the guard will happen. Alcaraz has played the tournament just twice, and his best finish came last year, when he lost in the fourth round to Sinner. He’s played fewer than 15 professional matches on grass. Djokovic, on the other hand, has not lost a match at Wimbledon since the 2017 quarterfinals. But Sinner, right on the heels of his win over Alcaraz, won the first two sets of their quarterfinal before ceding the next three. After applying the always-suspect sports transitive property, one might wonder if the gap between the two on grass is really so big. Today, Alcaraz will get a true chance to prove his grass bonafides when he takes on 2021 finalist Matteo Berettini.
Before reaching his first Wimbledon final, in 2006, Nadal had only played the tournament twice and had looked totally befuddled in 2005 when he lost in the second round. But that is how the great ones often emerge—they calibrate their rocketship and then they blast off. Alcaraz is steadier on clay and hard courts than he is on the grass, but he is clearly approaching exit velocity on the green stuff. He won the grass court tuneup tournament at Queens Club. He made quick work of poor Jeremy Chardy, his first-round opponent. In the third round, he held steady against Nicolas Jarry, a 6-foot-6 bomber built in the mold of a Wimbledon spoiler. If he stays healthy, Alcaraz will be favored in every match until the final. Then, he will have another chance to turn the page. And not a moment too soon.