Long before its men’s final pre-scripted for the history books, Wimbledon this year seemed as if it were a serialised fairy tale. It teemed with stories spun out by Hans Christian Andersen or as in an exuberant Rushdie novel, but more remarkable still as they were all true.
Consider the four women’s semi-finalists. Aryna Sabalenka, banned from playing at Wimbledon last year as she is from Belarus, this year seemed like a reincarnation of players who had retired such as Serena Williams, whose raw power and occasionally messy footwork she appears to have inherited, and Monica Seles, whose shriek when striking the ball Sabalenka improbably outshouts. Elina Svitolina was the ‘people’s princess’ because she is Ukrainian, charming and was competing just nine months after giving birth. Her husband, the popular French player Gael Monfils, stayed behind to look after their child. Last year, Czech player Marketa Vondrousova was at Wimbledon as a spectator while recovering from a second wrist surgery and wondering if her playing days were numbered. Ons Jabeur, the fourth of this story-studded cast of characters, is famously called the Minister of Happiness. Last week, she hugged every Tunisian supporter who greeted her after her semifinal win over Sabalenka, a master class in defusing aggression by mixing up your returns.
The men’s tournament had its share, too. The comeback of the popular Italian Matteo Berrettini, finalist in 2021 but returning after a year jammed with injuries and the trauma of having to withdraw last year because he tested positive with covid-19, was one. Berrettini has people swooning because of his model-like looks and soft-spoken charm, but his tennis is explosive. Against seeds such as Alex de Minaur who he beat in the third round and Alexander Zverev, the gentle Italian who is 6 feet 5inches reduced them to despair as serves and forehands whistled past them. In his on-court interview after reaching the quarters, Berrettini said, “I spent many days in my bed crying about not being able to play. It's sad but it's true. I missed playing, I missed competing.”
I was in the press and players box on Court 18 when he played de Minaur, who had just finished runner up at the prestigious Queens Club tournament the week before. The Aussie’s camp, which included Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt and De Minaur himself were reduced to shrugging in disbelief at Berrettini’s incredible form after a year from hell.
The tennis rags to riches story of Christopher Eubanks, a collegiate tennis player from Atlanta who turned pro six years ago, captivated Wimbledon, even though one of his seeded victims was Cameron Norrie, the highest-ranking British player. Who could have foreseen that he would be one set away from the semifinal, making light of his 6 foot 7 inch frame as danced around the court, serving and volleying effortlessly against the world number 3 Daniil Medvedev?
Until the final, this was arguably the best match of the men’s tournament. It had variety, it had drama; thundering forehand returns from both players one moment, delicate drop shots and volleys the next. Eubanks' serves pushed Medvedev, who quixotically stands four to seven meters behind the baseline, so far back that he seemed on the verge of sitting down in the lines person’s chair. A couple of times the Russian’s backswing nearly hit the linesman.
On and off court, Medvedev is supremely intelligent and detached. At the outset of the tournament, he said he had no problems answering questions about the war in Ukraine and then diplomatically said he stood for peace. On court that day, he navigated his way through the minefield that playing Eubanks was and coped with an unfriendly crowd, blitzing the American 6-1 in the fifth.
After all that drama, the semifinals, both men’s and women’s, seemed a letdown. It was as if an interval had been forced upon a tournament, otherwise too packed with compelling action, to prevent a collective overheating.
Both Medvedev and Svitolina appeared to have come on court without a strategy. Time and again, Svitolina went for Vondrousova’s stronger side, her tricky forehand, as if drawn by some hara-kiri instinct into self-destruction. When the Ukrainian walked off after losing 3-6,3-6, her eyes welled up in tears, reminding us that fairy tales can have sad endings. Medvedev, meanwhile, stayed well behind the baseline while Carlos Alcaraz toyed with him with drop shots and drop volleys and punishing groundstrokes.
If both seemed too passive, Jannik Sinner took the court against Djokovic with the wrong strategy: try to hit the speedy Serb off the court. Last year, their five-set quarterfinal was possibly the best of the tournament after another scorcher in the round of 16 between Sinner and Alcaraz.
This year, the Australian Darren Cahill, who has coached Andre Agassi and Simona Halep, joined Sinner’s coaching team. He appears to have encouraged the 21-year-old to try to hit even more winners, which has made him much more erratic than a year ago. Against Djokivic, Sinner sprayed forehand errors by going for winners too early with such regularity that one began to wonder if he had a plane to catch. Even more remarkably, Sinner said afterwards that his defeat in straight sets seemed to him a closer match than last year’s five setter.
Also underwhelming was the women’s final where Vondrousova’s left-handed low forehands with little pace proved too much for Jabeur, who had lost to the Czech twice this year already. Jabeur was emotional even before she walked on to court, brushing away tears. Her tennis seemed a throwback to her nervy performance last year. Having lost two finals consecutively, questions are now looming about whether she has the temperament to win a Grand Slam. Still, the glass-half-full analysis needs to underline that she beat four Grand Slam winners en route to the final, two of whom were seen as more likely winners of Wimbledon than the Tunisian.
In a tournament of compare and contrast, reflect and ruminate on a world after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the men’s final was one of the best in the past decade. Djokovic was going for a calendar Grand Slam while also seeking a 24th Grand Slam and seeking to equal Federer’s eight Wimbledon singles haul. Alcaraz was aiming to be the youngest winner since Boris Becker won as an unseeded 17-year-old in 1985. Having had an indifferent record on the surface till this year, the 20-year-old was also seeking to join an elite club of players that included Becker, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Rafael Nadal as winners of the prestigious warm up at Queens Club and Wimbledon back-to-back.
But the most remarkable and paradoxically least commented upon aspect of the match was the 16-year age difference between the two players, harking back to a match almost 50 years earlier when Jimmy Connors, then 21, destroyed the 39-year-old Ken Rosewall in the 1974 Wimbledon finals, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. Djokovic, in fact, cantered to a first set win 6-1 as Alcaraz appeared to struggle find his rhythm. Alcaraz then gave himself a scolding: “Carlos, increase the level. Everyone would be disappointed.”
The unusually mature 20-year-old eventually marched through his final service game in the fifth set, displaying no signs of nerves. It showcased instead his full repertoire of strokes, from delicate drop shots to volleys at full stretch to thundering forehands to win 6-4. Djokovic paid him the richest tribute, saying that the youngster was a hybrid of the best of Federer, Nadal and himself and was a more “complete” player.
Not so long ago, people had replaced ‘after the Big Three Who?’ with the more fearful ‘After the Big Three What?’ as Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev repeatedly failed to win their first Grand Slam. Even though Grand Slam wins have long seemed preordained for him, Alcaraz was this Wimbledon’s most exciting story. He not only took down Djokovic on a court he had not lost on for a decade, but he out-Djokoviced Djokovic, simulating his tenacity, his court coverage and ability to play the points that mattered better than the Serb. Future sports scientists may put this down to some form of artificial intelligence that made such a perfect rival to the greatest competitor of all time, but Alcaraz’s victory came at a time when men’s tennis was confronted with a gaping void as substantial as a missing heart. For tennis, his victory was a fairy tale, but the magic also seemed real.
Rahul Jacob is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.