Steve Flink: Rafael Nadal Moves Out in Front with Australian Open Triumph - UBITENNIS
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Steve Flink: Rafael Nadal Moves Out in Front with Australian Open Triumph



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Until this year, the story of Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open has essentially been a tale of misfortune. To be sure, he had won the title once in 2009, toppling Roger Federer in an inspiring five set final, signaling that his hard court game had advanced immensely, making most learned observers believe that his name would be back on the honor roll of champions many times in the years ahead at Melbourne.


But since that time his luck in that land had run out. He got injured in a loss to Andy Murray in 2010 and had to retire after two sets, was hobbled a year later when he was beaten by countrymen David Ferrer, and then was beaten in one of the greatest matches in the history of the game in the 2012 final by Novak Djokovic, losing after leading 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth set and missing a backhand passing shot that was his for the making.

Two years later, Nadal seemed certain to return to the winner’s circle when he took on Stan Wawrinka in the final. Nadal was 12-0 head to head against the Swiss heading into that contest, and had never even lost a set to his burly rival. But the Spaniard injured his back during the warmup and was a shell of his normal self as he lost in four sets to Wawrinka.

In 2017, Nadal collided with Federer for the second time in the Australian Open final, eight years after their last Melbourne meeting in a title round. This time, Nadal fought ferociously to build a 3-1 fifth set lead, but lost five games in a row to an adversary who went into a magical spell to wrestle the crown away from his celebrated rival. And then in 2019 Nadal came storming into the final without losing a set, only to encounter a sublime Djokovic who picked him apart in straight sets.

The list of jarring setbacks for Nadal is almost endless, including a quarterfinal with Stefanos Tsitsipas a year ago in the quarterfinals when the charismatic left-hander was beaten in five sets despite leading two sets to love. That was only the third time in his career that he had squandered a two set lead.

Time and again, Nadal has been either physically impaired or just plain unlucky at the Australian Open, where success should have come his way on so many other occasions. That is why his astonishing escape against Daniil Medvedev in a stirring final this time around in Melbourne will live irrevocably in his mind. Nadal was not only trailing the imposing Russian two sets to love, but he also was serving at 2-3, 0-40 in the third set before roaring back with the tenacity and temerity that have become his trademark across a singularly storied career featuring an enduring fighting spirit with an equanimity that no one in his profession has matched.

Nadal rallied valiantly to overcome Medvedev 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in five hours and twenty four minutes, only 29 minutes shorter than the record breaking Nadal-Djokovic battle ten years ago. This victory over Medvedev was inarguably the greatest comeback of the Spaniard’s career.

Only three times previously had the great left-hander fought back to win from two sets down, and the last time was back in 2007 at Wimbledon against another Russian, Mikhail Youzhny. Never before had he done it in a Grand Slam tournament final.

Making his achievement all the more remarkable was the fact that Nadal had endured such a disruptive 2021 campaign. After losing to Djokovic in the penultimate round at Roland Garros, he had to skip Wimbledon to nurse an ailing foot. Returning to the ATP Tour in Washington, he was beaten by Lloyd Harris, and soon announced he would not compete at the U.S. Open. After going back home to Spain, he confirmed that he would not play again for the rest of the year.

Nadal played a few exhibition matches in December against Andy Murray and Denis Shapovalov, came down with a case of Covid which threatened to keep him out of Australia, but then entered the ATP 250 event in Melbourne shortly before the Australian Open, claiming the title there over Maxime Cressy but playing only three matches that week.

After all that disruption, Nadal was not expecting much of himself heading into the Australian Open. But he played his way into decent form and dropped only one set on his way to the quarterfinals. Bad karma seemed to resurface when he was confronted by an ailing stomach during his match with Shapovalov. Nadal cast aside the Canadian easily over the first two sets but then his stomach and the extreme afternoon heat nearly took him out of the tournament. Somehow, Nadal, who moved very cautiously at stages during the fourth set, recovered just enough energy and mobility to halt Shapovalov 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3.

He then defeated the Italian No. 1 Matteo Berrettini in a four set semifinal, withstanding a surge from the No. 7 seed. Nadal won the first two sets easily as Berrettini, perhaps worn out by debilitating five set clashes with Carlos Alcaraz and Gael Monfils, performed far too passively. But then he elevated his game considerably before Nadal prevailed 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. From the middle of the third set until late in the fourth, the Italian served five love games in a row before faltering.

And so Nadal set up his riveting appointment against the No. 2 seed Medvedev, one of the game’s most enigmatic and perplexing characters. Medvedev had survived a harrowing quarterfinal with Felix Auger-Aliassime, rescuing himself from match point down at 4-5 in the fourth set with a timely service winner before fending off six break points in the fifth set and holding twice from 15-40 down at the beginning and end of that set. He deservedly succeeded 6-7 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-4.

Thoroughly drained after that triumph, Medvedev did himself a favor by knocking out No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-6 (5) 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in an economical two-and-a-half-hour semifinal, earning his right to meet Nadal in the final.

Nadal was on an historical quest in search of a record 21st major title and the chance to join Djokovic, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only male players to win at least two titles at every Grand Slam Championship. Medvedev, meanwhile, was striving to establish himself as the first man in the Open Era to back up a breakthrough victory at a major by securing the next “Big Four” crown. 

Medvedev commenced the battle with deep confidence and no hesitation. After Nadal struggled to reach 2-1 in the first set, Medvedev swept five games in a row, outmaneuvering the Spaniard from the baseline, returning serve beautifully on the stretch, leaving his adversary befuddled in the process. But then Nadal found his range off the ground, improving his length off the forehand, lacing his backhand authoritatively deep down the line and sharply crosscourt, moving his serve around more effectively.

Nadal built a 5-3 second set lead and had a set point on serve in that ninth game. Medvedev erased it with a stinging backhand down the line that was unmanageable for Nadal. They went to a tie-break and once more Nadal was in command. He led 5-3 in that sequence but Medvedev refused to buckle. He captured four points in a row, coaxing two mistakes in a row from Nadal at the net, using the drop shot to set up a swing volley winner, and then producing a backhand passing shot winner up the line.

That comeback gave Medvedev the tie-break 7-5 and a two sets to love lead. The 35-year-old Nadal’s prospects looked bleak against the 25-year-old Russian, and the Spaniard’s plight only worsened when he fell behind 0-40 at 2-3 in the third after Medvedev sent a jump backhand winner down the line for a winner. A service break for Medvedev here would have been catastrophic for Nadal. But he sent a winning forehand drop shot down the line and Medvedev then bungled the next two points. Soon Nadal had fashioned a clutch hold for 3-3. After losing the next game he took three in a row to seal the third set.

Medvedev was looking increasingly fatigued while Nadal was invigorated, and spurred on by a crowd entirely in his corner. The players traded service breaks in the third and fourth games of the fourth set, but Medvedev was broken again in a five deuce game as Nadal converted on his seventh break point to lead 3-2. Nadal obstinately recovered from 15-40 on his way to 5-3 as the match passed the four hour mark, and he sealed the set 6-4 after a love hold.

Improbably, the match had gone to a fifth set, with Medvedev increasingly beleaguered, agitated by the pro-Nadal audience, and infuriated with himself for not closing out the account in straight sets. A sprightly Nadal broke Medvedev for 3-2 in the fifth set, survived a six deuce game to reach 4-2, and held on confidently for 5–3. At 5-4, he served for the match and surged to 30-0, two points away from a long awaited second Australian Open crown. But he missed a looping forehand crosscourt, and double faulted. Medvedev took the next point and then broke back for 5-5 when Nadal netted a routine two-hander crosscourt.

The ghosts of Australian Opens past were surrounding Nadal, reminding him about his history of disappointments on Rod Laver Arena. Medvedev served an ace for a 30-15 lead in the eleventh game but then sent a backhand drop shot down the line, a play that had hurt him too many times against an astute opponent. It was not a bad drop shot, but Nadal angled a backhand winner past Medvedev. Although Medvedev saved two break points in that critical game, Nadal came through on the third, spending a high trajectory return down the middle, luring Medvedev into a forehand down the line error.

Serving for the match a second time, Nadal was unstoppable, serving an ace out wide for 40-0, punching a backhand volley low down the line that was too good. He held at love and completed a stunning five set victory. At long last he had Grand Slam title No. 21, breaking a tie with Djokovic and Roger Federer, standing alone at the top of the list for the first time. It was the second time he has beaten Medvedev in a five set major final. Defeating the Russian in the 2019 U.S. Open final was no surprise, but this one was a shocker in many ways. Before Novak Djokovic was deported after the draw was made, Nadal was expected to meet the Serbian in the semifinals. He was also anticipating a quarterfinal showdown with Sascha Zverev, but the German bowed out in a dismal quarterfinal performance against Shapovalov. It is doubtful that Nadal would have beaten either player.

Now Nadal has raised his record in Grand Slam tournament finals to 21-8. That is an extraordinary feat. Djokovic and Federer are both 20-11. They have been in two more finals than the Spaniard, but have come away with one less major title. Nadal has been more efficient. One reason, of course, is his invincibility at Roland Garros. Although he has lost three matches across the years at the French Open (two to Djokovic and one to Robin Soderling) Nadal has never lost a final on the clay in Paris. He is 13-0 in title round contests and 8-8 at the three other majors.

He need not apologize for that fact, especially after his latest triumph in Melbourne, which has rounded out his record in the places of prestige. The next Grand Slam tournament, of course, starts in late May at Roland Garros. Nadal suffered one of his rare losses in 2021 at the French Open to Djokovic in the semifinals, but he will return in 2022 as the clear favorite. To be sure, his body is fragile and there is no certainty that Nadal will be able to perform at peak efficiency. But, all things being equal, even if he is not at his very best, the Spaniard will be the man to beat.

At the moment, the status of Djokovic is uncertain. He may or may not get the vaccine in the near future. If he does not decide to do that, he might miss all four majors this year and perhaps beyond. It could destroy his career.

The hope here is that he will get that vaccination soon. In 2018 he had a procedure to fix his issues with an ailing elbow and it turned his career around, enabling the Serbian to serve properly again and play free of pain. He won the last two majors of that season at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, took two more majors in 2019, added another in 2020, and secured three last year. Djokovic realized that the only way he could play the game at the highest levels and contend on his own terms for majors was to do the procedure.

He needs to look at the vaccine the same way. The Serbian has said he was in tears about having that surgery. He did not really want to do it, but understood it was essential for his welfare. He finds himself in the same predicament now. Without taking the vaccine he will put himself out of circulation and destroy much of the hard work he has done to put himself in a position to prevail in the chase for the most majors, and to add to his credentials as a candidate for being the greatest tennis player of all time.

Clearly, Grand Slam titles alone will not settle the issue. Djokovic has now finished seven years at No. 1 in the world, an unprecedented feat. Nadal and Federer have done it five times each and Pete Sampras concluded a record six consecutive years at the top from 1993-98. Djokovic has also resided no fewer than 358 weeks at No. 1 across his career, far more than anyone else in men’s tennis. And he has a winning career head to head record of 27-23 over Federer and 30-28 versus Nadal.

The case between the Serbian and the Spaniard remains exceedingly close for historical supremacy, and the third member of the iconic trio has strong credentials as well. Federer has been the most consistent of the “Big Three” at the biggest tournaments, once reaching 23 semifinals in a row at the majors, and 36 straight quarterfinals as well.

But it is entirely possible that Federer will win no more majors. He hopes to be back for Wimbledon this year, although that may not happen. He will be 41 in August. Time is not standing still. Perhaps Federer has a miracle left in him, but don’t count on it.

Since Roland Garros in 2018, Djokovic has won eight of the fifteen majors and Nadal has taken five. Federer last won a Grand Slam title at the 2018 Australian Open. The upcoming edition of Roland Garros will be crucial. If Nadal comes through on the red clay of Roland Garros again and secures Grand Slam title No. 22, he would pull two ahead of Djokovic. I have no doubt that Djokovic will win more majors after he sorts through his current dilemma, but who is to say that the indefatigable Nadal will not win another Roland Garros crown in 2023?

In my view, the French Open of 2022 will be a pivotal tournament for both Nadal and Djokovic. Djokovic can’t afford to fall behind Nadal by two major titles, but that could well happen. My feeling is that he will realize that he must get the vaccine to ensure that he can play when and where he wants in 2022 and in the next couple of years. And yet, even if he does, will he be able to topple Nadal two years in a row at Roland Garros? That is a tall order. I doubt that will happen. I believe Djokovic is a great clay court player and the best all surface competitor in tennis. Having said that, Nadal is a towering clay court player who will want his crown back this year. As it stands now, I believe he will do so.

Meanwhile, although Djokovic not playing and Nadal garnering his second title were the chief storylines in Melbourne, it would be a mistake to ignore the progress of a few others. Tsitsipas came out of a difficult period with his injured arm/elbow and made a fine run to the semifinals. He will be a big threat again this year in Paris after reaching the final in 2021 and leading Djokovic two sets to love. I am encouraged about him. Sinner did good work to reach another quarterfinal at a Grand Slam tournament. Despite being taken apart by a soaring Tsitsipas, Sinner is improving steadily at the age of 20. Berrettini demonstrated in Melbourne that he belongs in the latter stages of major tournaments. In 2019 he lost to Nadal in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Last year he was beaten by Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the French Open and the U.S. Open, and he was the runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon. He is going places.

So, too, is Auger-Aliassime. He was one point away from a second major semifinal in a row. He could not have been better in defeat than he was in Melbourne. His all court prowess is a joy to behold and he competes with a calm disposition. One of these days he is going to take one of the premier prizes in the sport.

For the time being, though, the focus remains on Nadal and Djokovic. Djokovic will be establishing his priorities and figuring out soon where he wants to go from here. Nadal is right where he wants to be, coming back from a long layoff to get the job done under daunting circumstances, revitalized after a disconcerting 2021 abbreviated season.

At long last, Rafael Nadal stands atop the ladder at the Grand Slam Championships. That means much more to him than he will ever say. Not once has he been boastful about any of his most important triumphs. Here is a man who has his life and achievements fully in perspective, who knows himself very well, who recognizes that winning without honor is not winning at all. At the 2022 Australian Open, Nadal as always wore his success elegantly.


COMMENT: Is A Happy Carlos Alcaraz Too Good To Be True?



Carlos Alcaraz has put fun back into professional tennis.


Even the stoic Novak Djokovic has been taken by the fun times. Instead of frowning when Alcaraz comes up with one of his amazing winners, Novak releases a broad smile that turns his bearded face into a fan-winning appeal.

Who would have thought that Novak would become such a fan favorite in his old age as he attracts even Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal fans, and maybe some Alcaraz lovers. That last one may be difficult to believe, considering the almost cult-like following of Alcaraz.


It’s the boyish smile that Carlos uses to so easily lure tennis fans into his fan base. Opponents even join the fun when Alcaraz puts on another amazing stunt on the court, or sometimes while sliding to hit a winner off what looked like a sure winner by his opponents.

Even British star Daniel Evans couldn’t ignore the exuberance of Alcaraz in their third-round match at the U.S. Open. Alcaraz comes up with another one of his amazing shots to win a point, and Evans breaks into an ear-to-ear smile. Everyone is happy.

Yes, Carlos Alcaraz is almost too good to be true.


Yes, the amazing 20-year-old Spaniard gives tennis the bump it needs in the new generation of players after the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic heydays. Of course, Djokovic is still trying to add to his record-setting number of Grand Slam titles.

Djokovic is still very dangerous. It could be a spectacular final if Novak and Alcaraz could work their way into another Grand Slam final as they did at Wimbledon.

Of course, even after taking much of the fire out of Alexander Zverev in straight sets in the quarterfinals, Alcaraz isn’t home free yet. Not with former champion Daniil Medvedev standing in his path in Friday’s semifinals before a possible showdown with Djokovic.


It’s anyone’s guess which semifinalist will walk off with the women’s crown on Saturday.

The only Grand Slam champion left, Australian Open champ and new world’s No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka, is in the bottom half of the draw, and must take on red-hot Madison Keys in Thursday’s semifinals.

Wimbledon titlist Marketa Vondrousova didn’t provide much of a test for 2017 U.S. Open finalist Keys in a 6-4, 6-1 loss in the quarterfinals. As good as Keys has been lately, Sabalenka will be difficult to handle.

That leaves young Coco Gauff or French runner-up Karolina Muchova as the other possible finalist. Sabalenka appears to be too strong and aggressive, not to mention talented, for the other three semifinalists.

Where’s French champion Iga Swiatek or high-ranked Jessica Pegula? Of course, both were wiped out in the round of 16, Pegula by Keys and Swiatek by unpredictable Jelena Ostapenko.

That leaves the gate wide open for Sabalenka’s fourth straight Grand Slam semifinal.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at

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Lesson Failed: Never Take A Legend For Granted




Carlos Alcaraz should have learned at least one important lesson from his marathon loss to Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati final.


Never take anything for granted against a legend such as Djokovic.

Alcaraz paid a big price for ignoring that lesson in Sunday afternoon’s scorching heat on a blistering hard court.


Djokovic appeared to be a beaten man when Alcaraz served with a 4-3 lead in the second set. He was virtually wiped out, or so it appeared.

But the match really was just beginning. Alcaraz won the first point of that eighth game of the set, and everything appeared to be in order for the young Spaniard.

Boy, did things change quickly as Alcaraz carelessly committed four consecutive unforced errors. Suddenly, it was a new game with Novak looking alive and well. Four games later, they were in a tiebreaker and Alcaraz held his only match point of the day.

Djokovic was on fire then and on his way to a 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) victory.


Of course, this one really didn’t mean that much to either Djokovic or Alcaraz. They are after bigger goals.

The big one comes up in New York in almost three weeks, if both players can make it to the final of the U.S. Open. 

Alcaraz can only get better. After all, he’s only 20 years old. He made a remarkable improvement over his performance in losing to Tommy Paul a week earlier in Toronto.

You wouldn’t think Djokovic can get much better than the game he played in the Cincinnati final. Yes, it should be steaming hot in Arthur Ashe Stadium, too.


This time it will be five sets, and there is no telling who will survive the heat best, if Alcaraz gets another shot at Djokovic. For both players to make it through two weeks in New York to the Sunday final would be a major achievement for Djokovic and defending champion Alcaraz.

Either way, it probably is just a matter of time before Djokovic gives up the chase for more Grand Slam titles. It is worth it in the end of other majors for Djokovic only if he can prevail through the final shot.

But anything short of other major titles wouldn’t be worth what Djokovic went through Sunday in Cincinnati for 229 minutes. Of course, Alcaraz went through similar circumstances at the French Open.

But he’s 16 years younger than Djokovic.

All of the great ones eventually have to surrender to time.


Coco Gauff likely will become one of the great ones before she finishes. A Grand Slam title in New York would set her on her way to greatness.

The 19-year-old, much like Alcaraz, is loaded with weapons. First, she is a great athlete.

That was obvious to me as early as May 2019 when I spotted Gauff resting on a bench at courtside after a long workout at LTP Tennis in Charleston. She already had qualified for the $100K ITF tournament there. 

I interviewed Coco for just a few minutes before she was called back to the court. A month later she was in the round of 16 at the French Open.


 Just 15 years old, it was just a matter of time before Gauff would become a superstar.

She isn’t quite there yet, but after winning titles in Washington as well as her first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, Gauff is getting close. She still has two more chances to win a Grand Slam title as a teenager, and the next step could be New York. She already has the experience of a runner-up finish at last year’s French Open.

Gauff really didn’t have much trouble upending Karolina Muchova, 6-3, 6-4, at Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open on Sunday.

But again, the draw for the U.S. Open will be filled with players capable of winning a Grand Slam title, even including the likes of Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, ranked just ninth in the world. As a left-hander, she already has the edge over most of the players in the field.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at 

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WIMBLEDON: An immense Alcaraz, but the changing of the guard is yet to come…

Alcaraz’s merits compared with Djokovic’s demerits. Just a bad day among many so-so days for the Serbian, nonetheless No. 2 of the ATP ranking? Or is it the start of an inexorable decline? Farewell to the Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors?



Carlos Alcaraz reacts to winning the 2023 Wimbledon men's singles title (image via Wimbledon twitter)

NOTE: This article was written in Italian and has been Translated by Carla Montaruli


Carlitos Alcaraz triumphed, cheers for Carlitos Alcaraz. The feat he accomplished at only 20 years of age and in his fourth tournament on grass is remarkable, remarkable indeed. He is the third youngest champion ever after 17-year-old Becker and 20-year-old Borg, as well as the third Spaniard after Santana and Nadal to win the trophy. Being able to beat a player in the fifth set after 4 hours and 43 minutes who is the king of marathons, a seven-time champion and had won 45 straight matches over the last 10 years on Centre Court, can only be considered a great exploit.

Credit where credit is due. Alcaraz played beautiful tennis, complete in all aspects, bold forehands and backhands, powerful and hit on the rise, drop-shots, acrobatic and diving volleys, hanging smashes, aces and winning serves. All this with great mental solidity displayed throughout the entire match: after losing the first set badly, enduring the tension of a second set tiebreak which had not started well for him, then dominating the third set and finally closing the encounter as a consummate veteran in the fifth with a last service game played brilliantly after tenaciously defending very well the break he had secured in the third game of the final set.

A 20-year-old young man could not be asked for more. A well-deserved applause and congratulations also for defending that first place in the world rankings that he will hold for the twenty-ninth week, hoping to keep it as long as possible.

Staying at the top for 389 weeks like the extraordinary champion he beat on Sunday would mean dominating the world stage for over seven years. Over seven years! And…as I write this I wonder if we have paid enough attention to such a feat in all that time! 

Yes, because you write 310 weeks, Federer’s weeks as world No.1, then you write 389, that is Djokovic’s weeks spent in the same spot:  there and then they seem like just numbers…but only when you divide them by 52, the weeks in a year, do you realize the immensity of these extended dominances within a sport whose growing competitiveness and many booming young guns are emphasized almost every day.


Crazy in the case of both Federer and Djokovic with the ATP scepter in their hands, because each of them – as the fourth part of the Fab Four – had to confront at least with the other three. All four have been world number one. Still, for 699 weeks, almost 13 years and a half, Roger and Nole were number one, Nadal was king for 209 weeks and Murray for 41. Add them up and that’s another five years—eighteen years of reign for four kings. Written so many times off the top of my head…but upon reflection this is impressive stuff. It never remotely happened before.

So here it is… the idea that Carlitos Alcaraz could one day – but we are talking about seven years! – reach Djokovic’s 389-week reign today may seem unreal, absolutely far-fetched.

But…are there perhaps three more champions on the horizon who can recreate a quartet of phenomena like the Fab Four? I don’t see them at all. Will Alcaraz be alone in the driver’s seat for the next few years? 

In seven years, 10 or 18 – 18 years was the reign of the Fab Four — phenoms could sprout up almost like mushrooms! Speculating on what will happen in such a long and far away period is a mindless divertissement and I don’t know why it dawned on me…. Except perhaps Holger Rune today – though greatly downgraded by the last duel here at Wimbledon – there doesn’t seem to be a rival of Alcaraz’s caliber right now. Our compatriots may see our Sinner two steps below Alcaraz and one step below Rune, but neither do they see other “prospects” ahead of him. Djokovic called Sinner one of the leaders of the new generation. His fifth place in the Race, along with eighth in ATP ranking certify such status.

But then for a year or two, or maybe even three, if Rune and Sinner don’t make giant strides, or if a new rising star doesn’t emerge, Carlitos Alcaraz could easily add a hundred or more weeks to the 29 he has already earned as No. 1.

Or am I venturing into a wild prediction?

Just not to present you with a single scenario I want to say, however, that the most obvious commonplace one could come up with today, after this final that Djokovic shall not cease to regret for at least four reasons – three missed backhands in the tiebreak and a clumsy drive volley which squandered a hard-earned break point for a 2-0 lead in the decider – is that we have witnessed the changing of the guard.

It will make so many headlines, sure. I may have uttered it too, in one of the many videos I did for Ubi Instagram, for Ubitennis, and the IntesaSanPaolo website. But in my opinion, it’s not true yet.

Djokovic is not ready to retire. He is not going to quit, even if the dream of achieving a Grand Slam has vanished, maybe forever. Farewell to Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors? I think so. He is still world No. 2, isn’t he?

I had written throughout the tournament – you may check – that I didn’t think I had seen the best Djokovic. He had not been at his best against Hurkacz or even Rublev. And, as much as many readers disagreed, neither had he dominated Sinner as he had last year in the last three sets when he had been truly unplayable. Demerit to him and credit to Sinner, as often happens simultaneously.

I wrote that Hurkacz had thrown the first set out of the window and when leading 5-4 in the tiebreak of the second with two serves at disposal to put it away he had not been faultless but had shown a lack of personality. I also wrote that Rublev had been unlucky in the fourth set on the occasion of some break points he had failed to convert.

We did not see the best Djokovic, in my opinion, even in the final against Alcaraz. Otherwise, he would have been two sets up.

Oh yes, come on: the three backhand errors he made in the first tiebreak he lost after 15 won were not errors from Djokovic, the champion who has always played the crucial pointsbetter than anyone else, certainly better than Federer and Murray, perhaps equal to Nadal.. In particular, match points aside – what about that, dear Roger? – those tiebreaks that are said to be worth double.

Those three backhands, a drop shot at 3-2 when he was a minibreak ahead, the one at 6-5 and setpoint after he had deftly returned Carlitos’ serve, the one at 6-6 were errors worthy of a Hurkacz, a Norrie or a Shapovalov, not a Djokovic!

I recall – just quoting from memory because I haven’t time to engage in dutiful and thorough research – that Nole’s record in best-of-five matches after winning the first set is monstrous. Imagine after winning the first two sets.

Here, a Nole in ordinary form, even against that very inspired Alcaraz, would have started the third set with a two-set lead. 

I know that with ifs and buts, you don’t go anywhere. But I’m pretty sure – and I think Nole is too – that if the two sets lead never came into being, it was more because of Nole’s demerit than Carlitos’ merit.

But is this a random demerit, due to a bad day and a series of bad days as it appeared to me throughout the tournament, or is it a sign of the slow inexorable decline of the Serbian who is beginning to come to terms with his age? That drive volley with which he dissipated the all-important break point and the chance to rise 2-0 in the fifth set was another topical moment. Yet, it was not Novak to succeed in a decisive breakthrough, but Carlos three minutes later.

The fury with which, at the changeover, Nole smashed his racket on the net post is revealing. Nole had missed the train to victory and, experienced as he is, he understood it.

I would say that this casual contingent demerit or signal of inexorable decline is the discriminating point of our debate.

Bravo, bravo to Alcaraz for taking advantage of it with precocious maturity, but did Djokovic stumble over a mediocre day by chance, because it can happen to everyone, even to younger tennis players, or because even he – an extraordinary phenomenon – is on that rickety path where age starts taking its toll?

If the most plausible answer we believe in is the first one – and that is the one I believe in – we cannot yet speak of a changing of the guard. 

Djokovic can safely return to the throne of tennis, perhaps win the US Open and/or the next ATP Finals in Turin as well as an 11th Australian Open. Push the undoubtedly great Alcaraz back to second place.

If, on the other hand, the right answer is the second, this Wimbledon definitely enshrines the changing of the guard. But, even in this scenario, only the changing of the guard at the top and the handover between Djokovic and Alcaraz. Not a generational changing of the guard though, at least for now and the very near future, because even a subdued and slightly tarnished Djokovic is stronger than Rune, Sinner, and Tsitsipas on almost any surface. At worst he would be the second-best tennis player in the world. The others, Sinner included, would do anything to stand where he stands.

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