Carlos Alcaraz’s first step shows he’s ready for tennis immortality at Wimbledon

Carlos Alcaraz’s summer won’t be defined by a first-round win at Wimbledon over Mark Lajal but it may prove instructive as he attempts a feat only ever accomplished by tennis royalty.

Any list comprising solely of Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic is one worth being on and, at the age of just 21, Alcaraz is aiming to join them as the only men to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. On the evidence of this opening salvo in the first match on Centre Court at Wimbledon 2024, he is ready to complete the “Channel slam”.

There may be only so much you can read into a straight-sets win over the world No 262 making his grand slam main-draw debut, but the final scoreline of 7-6, 7-5, 6-2 in two hours and 23 minutes gives some indication that this wasn’t a bog-standard first-round triumph. That had almost nothing to do with Alcaraz and everything to do with Lajal.

Some players are overawed when stepping out on Centre Court for the first time, let alone when it’s your maiden grand slam match, but the Estonian 21-year-old thrived, rising to the occasion in a display that showed why he’s a relatively well-regarded prospect in tennis circles. He leapt about on the grass with a grin on his face, spun his racket on his finger in a carefree manner between points and geed up the crowd whenever he pulled out a spectacular winner. None of it felt like an affectation, simply the actions of a man who genuinely believes he belongs at this level.

He more than held his own against the reigning champion with a powerful serve and strong groundstrokes from the baseline but also a creativity and athleticism that plays well on grass. He fully participated in a string of phenomenal, exhausting rallies that had a delighted crowd gasping and oohing throughout. On another day, he could easily have taken a set and against a lesser foe, he probably would have won. The standing ovation given to both men at the end was more than well deserved.

Carlos Alcaraz was made to work hard in victory (John Walton/PA Wire)
Carlos Alcaraz was made to work hard in victory (John Walton/PA Wire)

But Alcaraz is the most elite of the elite and stepped things up to a level that even an inspired opponent couldn’t match. Last year proved he could win on the hallowed Wimbledon grass and now he has already dismissed any notion that his 2023 SW19 heroics were a flash in the pan or that he might take a while to get up to speed again after switching from clay.

If his surprise early exit to Jack Draper at Queen’s worried his fans, they can consider their concerns assuaged. After beating Djokovic in one of the greatest Wimbledon finals of all time last year, he has apparently picked up exactly where he left off and is immediately back in the All England Club groove.

In some ways, it is bizarre that he won at Wimbledon before he did at Roland Garros, given his status as the heir apparent to Nadal, but – as he proved again here – his game may actually be perfect for modern grass-court tennis. It’s easy to forget this is still only his fourth Wimbledon but he looks to the manor born while striding around the green stuff.

Sure, he can bang from the baseline when required but it’s the unique inventiveness and subtlety to go along with the required power that makes him so special. His patented drop shot, so beautifully disguised, was regularly catching out even the super-athletic Lajal, he was contorting his body at strange angles to dig out point-winning volleys with his almost ridiculously deft hands, and he was more than happy to dance into the net and use his lightning-quick reactions to become an unpassable wall.

Mark Lajal more than held his own in an impressive first-round display (Getty Images)
Mark Lajal more than held his own in an impressive first-round display (Getty Images)

Lajal was born exactly a week after Alcaraz, making this just the second time the Spaniard has faced someone younger than him in a tour-level match, after a third-round encounter with Juncheng Shang at the Australian Open in January. The Estonian didn’t make his opponent look like some past-it veteran about to hang up his racket but did show the boundless energy of youth to cause him plenty of problems in the first set.

Each of Alcaraz’s first three service games came under pressure, with Lajal finally sealing the deal in the third thanks to a powerful forehand, but Alcaraz showed his nose for the big moment by immediately breaking back to love despite having barely challenged the Lajal serve to that point. Incidentally the favourite again immediately broke back to love when he lost his serve early in the second set, and those occasions were the closest the underdog came to claiming an almighty upset.

During the final stages of the first set, Alcaraz dove full length at the net, causing his racket to go flying, and even though he lost the point, the roars of approval from the crowd seemed to enable him to ride a wave of momentum to a 7-3 tiebreak win.

Alcaraz was an all-action whirling dervish in his victory (Getty)
Alcaraz was an all-action whirling dervish in his victory (Getty)

The second set was similarly closely fought after the early trading of breaks but, at 5-5, the Spaniard battled from 0-40 down, moving his opponent all around the court to seal an unlikely break of serve before getting over the line 7-5.

That may have been the moment that ultimately broke Lajal’s spirit as he lost serve again early in the third set and, from there, Alcaraz was finally able to charge away from his opponent and seal a straight-sets win with a 6-2 triumph.

Bigger challenges undoubtedly await on Alcaraz’s road to the “Channel slam”, but the “Prince of Clay” appears well on his way to also becoming the “King of the Grass”.