Carlos Alcaraz leaving Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon shade once again

Kevin Palmer
Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz with Wimbledon trophies
Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz with Wimbledon trophies

Novak Djokovic gave up trying to win over his critics at Wimbledon long ago, with Carlos Alcaraz instantly claiming the kind of adulation the seven-time champion could only dream about.

The London crowds have been especially tough on Djokovic down the years, with the jeers and hostility he faced when the ATP Finals were played in England’s capital also in evidence during his runs to glory at Wimbledon.

Djokovic’s response to the hostility last year was to cup his hand to his ear and snap back at his doubters in a defiant fashion, but he admits the animosity he has always attracted has always stung.

Alcaraz has experienced a very different reaction from fans who were quick to embrace his charms, primarily as he is the most likely candidate to beat ‘bad boy’ Djokovic as his incredible tennis journey edged towards a conclusion.

Of course, Djokovic’s reputation is unwarranted as the greatest champion in tennis history deserves so much more respect that he is afforded by tennis fans around the world.

Yet the roar that greeted Alcaraz as he strolled out on Centre Court to open proceedings for this year’s Championships was so much warmer than Djokovic ever gets.

Then when Alcaraz flashed his trademark smile after losing a point in an entertaining first round match against Estonian qualifier Mark Lajal, there was a gasp from the crowd that confirmed they were on his side.

In the end, No 3 seed Alcaraz beat Lajal 7-6 (3) 7-5 6-2 in two hours and 22 minutes, but this was the kind of test Alcaraz would have welcomed now that he has come through to book his place in round two.

Lajal, also 21 but ranked 266 places lower than Alcaraz, sported dreadlocks pulled back in a pineapple-style ponytail on his Wimbledon debut.

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He took a chunk out of the three-time grand slam winner with a break of serve in the opening set.

But Alcaraz, who last month added the French Open to his Wimbledon and US Open titles, hit straight back and then eased through the gears.

“He played a really good match,” said Alcaraz. “Obviously he surprised me a little bit because I hadn’t seen him too much.

“He’s young, he’s my age and I’m sure I’m going to see him really soon on the tour and play him more often.

“But I’m really happy to get through and get my first win on Centre Court this year.

“I was a little bit surprised about his level. I think he played great. This level is not for his ranking.

“I’m sure if he is still playing at this level, he’s going to increase his ranking, his level, and everything.

“But I think I’m happy about my level as well. I think I played a solid match, a great match. But he was at his level, too.”

Alcaraz also confirmed he is relishing his return to a surface he surprised himself on by beating Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon final.

“I’m enjoying every time that I play on grass. Even last year or 2022, I always enjoy playing here,” he added.

“I think it’s a surface that I can put my style. I love this game on grass, hitting good shots, playing on
grass, trying to go to the net all the time.

“For me, yeah, well, I did a great tournament, achieved great things here on grass. As you said, I didn’t play too many matches. But every time that I walk on the court, I enjoy my game here on grass.”

Roger Federer was the idol of the Centre Court crowds for almost two decades and when he left the stage in 2022, Djokovic was never likely to be embraced as his successor.

Instead, Alcaraz appears to have filled the void as the new fans’ favourite at Wimbledon.