Sport is both a tradition and an invitation. A craft must be learned, skills acquired, technique honed – and there is a rich tradition of empirical evidence that shows there are better and worse ways of getting there. Knowingly or not, every emerging talent has to learn from the past.
Yet there is also an implied invitation: can you internalise the rules and restrictions of the sport, and come up with fresh and audacious solutions? Can you not only learn from a tradition but also add to it?
Occasionally, an athlete knows in their bones that they’re in possession of everything they need, not only to win but also to inch the game forward. This alignment of talent and self-possession creates an intoxicating air of deep confidence. It sweeps everything along – including, lethally, its opponents. For spectators, far from off-putting arrogance, it is simply inspiring.
I felt something along those lines within moments of watching the 20-year-old Spanish tennis player Carlos Alcaraz strike a ball on Centre Court during his semi-final match against Daniil Medvedev at Wimbledon. At the beginning, Alcaraz had six more sets to win before raising the trophy, but that felt like a minor detail. We were already staring at the champion.
“The Kid”, as some called Alcaraz on tour last year, can barely stay still for a second. The faster he’s moving, the more natural he looks – chasing down, tearing up the grass, flipping defiant defence into risk. Alcaraz is unbounded; his physicality electrifies the arena. Like his great compatriot Rafael Nadal, the winner of 22 grand slam men’s singles titles, he can’t be held back. But there was always a tortured dimension to Nadal, even as a young player. It was as if he’d been spoon-fed competitive juices as a child. With Alcaraz, there is more freedom within the relentlessness.
Inevitably, there are echoes of modern greats in Alcaraz’s style. After his defeat in the final, Novak Djokovic said Alcaraz’s game consisted of “certain elements from Roger, Rafa and myself”. Djokovic referenced “this Spanish bull mentality, fighting spirit… that we’ve seen with Rafa” and “some nice sliding backhands, some similarities with my backhands”.
There are flashes of Roger Federer in Alcaraz’s marriage of finesse and power. But Federer’s epicurean ease meant his deepest competitiveness had to be coaxed out of him (hence his affection and reverence for the rival who first pushed him so hard, Nadal). With Alcaraz, in contrast, no one needs to draw it out. He’s in ebullient battle mode from ball one.
[See also: When war comes to Wimbledon]
So Alcaraz has taken something from the so-called Big Three of the men’s game, then? Perhaps. But the overall effect is something startlingly new. Alcaraz is a pure ball striker of the highest order; he’s a relentless athlete who doesn’t know when he’s beaten; and he’s a fast-learning prodigy who can problem-solve mid-competition (this year’s Wimbledon was only the fourth grass tournament of his career).
I’ve been wondering about parallels from other sports. No one in basketball had imagined a 6ft 9in point guard (who could also play at centre), bringing playmaker vision alongside physical superiority – not until Magic Johnson did it. No one thought that a classically “correct” Test match batsman – straight bat, high elbow – could become a 360-degree six-hitter until the South African AB de Villiers showed us how.
When I worked with De Villiers at the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League, I made a snap judgement: so that’s what batting looks like without compromise. This is how great players push boundaries in sport. By rejecting a compromise that everyone else has accepted, they grow the game and the art. It’s a gift to the future as well as the present.
In football, who would Alcaraz be? Like Barcelona’s former midfielder Xavi, Alcaraz forces the tempo relentlessly, pushing opponents into “mistakes” that should really be classified as “TKOs” (when a boxing referee feels forced to end a pummelling). There’s a hint of Lionel Messi, too – in the process of an athlete conjuring something from nothing; an unbridled talent before he’s anything else.
In Alcaraz’s first Wimbledon final, he faced the greatest winner men’s tennis has known. Djokovic has won 23 grand slam titles, significantly through peerless resilience. In total points won the pair’s score was 168 v 166. If the gap felt wider, and that Alcaraz was the one driving forward, that’s exactly how Djokovic has amassed his haul of trophies. He is the master of hanging in, dragging opponents further out of their endurance comfort zone.
It’s unfair to make style a question of morality, but I suspect one reason why Djokovic has been less loved than his main rivals is simple: his mastery over the game of tennis has been based on making fewer mistakes. He’s a brilliant all-round player, but fundamentally he is powered by the errors he doesn’t make. Which fills the trophy cabinet, but not quite our hearts. The highest ambition – and perhaps also the way to honour the gods – is to play at tempo, to expand the dimensions of the game, and to flood the court with judicious optimism. And never, ever yield.
After Carlos Alcaraz’s exuberant win, there were a few tears on show in the genteel stands of Centre Court. The sport is incidental, in a way. It’s about what humans can do, the spirit and the talent – and how it never stops taking you by surprise.
Ed Smith is director of the Institute of Sports Humanities
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special