How Carlos Alcaraz lost the best set of tennis at this year’s Wimbledon but proved why he’s a champion

Carlos Alcaraz played out a remarkable match against Tommy Paul  (AFP via Getty Images)
Carlos Alcaraz played out a remarkable match against Tommy Paul (AFP via Getty Images)

It would have been easy for Carlos Alcaraz and Tommy Paul to find themselves overshadowed by the medical timeout-infused, five-set drama playing out between Jannik Sinner and Daniil Medvedev in Tuesday’s other men’s singles quarter-final. Instead, they delivered the greatest set of tennis at this year’s Wimbledon as part of their own three-hour, 11-minute epic.

By the time all was said and done, Alcaraz emerged as a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 victor and appears well on track to retain the title he won 12 months ago, especially now world No 1 and presumed biggest challenger Sinner is on his way back to Italy.

Yet the scoreline doesn’t begin to tell the story of a remarkable contest where the No 3 seed was pushed to his limits and consistently came up with the most spectacular answers. That he clapped his beaten foe off the court at the end of the contest gives some idea of what the pair had experienced together.

There was nothing but love and respect between the two men (AFP via Getty Images)
There was nothing but love and respect between the two men (AFP via Getty Images)

After a five-set triumph over Frances Tiafoe, where he was just a tiebreak away from crashing out, and a tricky four-set win over Ugo Humbert in his previous two matches, Alcaraz is having to work harder than many anticipated in his title defence.

But the things we want most are rarely easily obtained and to join the illustrious list of five (Laver, Borg, Nadal, Federer, Djokovic) to win the men’s singles title at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year, it’s only right that he truly earns it. And boy did he earn it today.

In an enthralling match, it was the first set in particular that will live long in the memory. One hour and 12 minutes of scintillating tennis that enraptured a Court 1 crowd left marvelling at the athleticism, power and ingenuity of both men. It was as pure a contest of clean, flat hitting as this famous old court has seen.

Carlos Alcaraz was pushed to his limit by Tommy Paul (Getty Images)
Carlos Alcaraz was pushed to his limit by Tommy Paul (Getty Images)

If, for some reason, Paul had forgotten the size of the challenge awaiting him against the defending champion, it took all of one game for Alcaraz to remind him. The Spaniard flew out of the blocks and earned four break points across the course of a game that, at seven minutes long, seemed remarkable but merely proved a taster of things to come.

To his credit, Paul dug deep to save each of the four and then, in his second service game, saved a fifth before finally succumbing to the relentless tidal wave at the sixth time of asking as Alcaraz found the line with a sublime forehand winner.

Alcaraz was already in full flow, combining baseline power-hitting with the guile of his patented drop shots and deft hands at the net. But if he needed a reminder of the challenge awaiting him against the man who won Queen’s last month, Paul delivered it in game four to immediately break back thanks to a scarcely believable backhand down the line on the run for a clean winner.

From there, the opening set reached overdrive and the sixth game, with Alcaraz serving at 2-3, will probably go down as the greatest single game at this year’s championship. Paul gave the champion a taste of his own medicine with a disguised drop shot followed by a passing shot winner to bring up one of four break points but having his own weapon used against him only angered the Spaniard. On the very next point, he returned the favour by slicing a drop shot from the back of the court that the American was unlikely to get to even if he hadn’t slipped after being fooled.

After a ridiculous nine deuces, the No 3 seed eventually scraped the hold and roared as loud a “VAMOS” as he ever has on the grass courts of Wimbledon as the crowd yelled their approval right back.

Alcaraz was jubilant after winning the sixth game of the match (AP)
Alcaraz was jubilant after winning the sixth game of the match (AP)

That marathon ensured the first six games of the match alone took 40 minutes but the real drama of the set was still to come. Just when it seemed destined for a tiebreak, the underdog growled and secured a 7-5 win with a timely break of serve, sealed by a remarkable passing shot down the line on the run.

After 72 minutes of tennis played at as high a level as it’s possible to produce, Paul had the hardest earned of sets on the board but the beauty of men’s grand slam play is that still meant he was only a third of the way to a semi-final spot.

Many would have been crushed by the manner of defeat in the opening salvo and, perhaps understandably, Alcaraz still looked shell-shocked at the start of the second set – promptly losing his serve by firing a routine forehand wide, having already thrown in a double fault earlier in the game. But like all true champions, the No 3 seed dug deep, refocused and slowly began to impose his will on the quarter-final.

The feeling that the 21-year-old would be the more likely of the pair to maintain the super-human levels they had both displayed in the first set ultimately proved correct. He immediately got the break back and, as if to prove that highlight-reel shot-making after long rallies isn’t the only way he’s capable of winning points, then opened up another service game with three straight aces before sealing it with an unreturned second serve.

Paul congratulated Alcaraz after a remarakble quarter-final (EPA)
Paul congratulated Alcaraz after a remarakble quarter-final (EPA)

As Paul faltered just slightly, Alcaraz punished him – breaking serve again in the middle of the second set as the American threw in two double faults and rode that advantage out to a 6-4 win.

The third set was even more ruthless. Paul was still showing flashes of the inspired player from that opening 72 minutes with sliding volley winners and crushed forehands but couldn’t string points together in the same way. When a couple of break-back points went begging at 3-2, Alcaraz promptly confirmed a double break en route to a 6-2 triumph.

Sniffing the finish line, last year’s champion went for the throat. An early break in the fourth set sent the 12th seed despondently shuffling back to his chair and when a Paul forehand floated wide to confirm a double break at 4-1, the game was up. A 6-2 victory rounded out the win as both players embraced at the net and Alcaraz then clapped off his vanquished foe. Medvedev now awaits in an intriguing Friday semi-final on Centre Court.

If Alcaraz does go on to complete the ‘Channel Slam’ on Sunday, this match may just be a historical footnote in the journey but those lucky enough to witness it won’t forget it in a hurry.