Carlos Alcaraz arrived at Queen’s not knowing it was possible to reclaim the World No 1 ranking from Novak Djokovic and secure the top seed slot ahead of Wimbledon. But as the week has progressed, the 20-year-old has found his feet on grass with impressive speed, and the Spaniard now stands on the brink of a statement victory that will send a warning to the rest of the field at the All England Club next month – including the man looking to win a record-equalling eighth singles title.
Alcaraz’s level has improved day-by-day and he has now reached his first grass-court final, a showdown with the Australian Alex de Minaur. After looking uncomfortable adjusting to the surface in his opening victory against Arthur Rinderknech, Alcaraz has progressed superbly while appearing to unlock a new skill or ability with each win. At first it was the movement, with Alcaraz studying film of Roger Federer and Andy Murray to improve his footwork. In the semi-finals against Sebastian Korda, it was his vicious forehand strike, which dismantled Korda’s big serve and looked close to unstoppable during some of the baseline exchanges.
The rate of Alcaraz’s progress has stunned even him. This is only the third tournament he’s played on grass, and only his second event outside of Wimbledon. He may have been given the top seeding at Queen’s after arriving in West London as a major champion and the youngest world No 1 in history, but other players in the field with a more natural grass game – such as the American Korda – were considered to be stronger favourites for the title. “I didn’t expect at the beginning of the week that I’m gonna be in the final and playing at such a good level,” Alcaraz said.
“I surprised myself honestly with the level that I’m playing right now,” he added. “How I’m feeling on court, I didn’t expect to feel that in just six days. Right now, I feel like I have been playing on grass for many years. We are comparing with last year and the first matches, the first contact on grass, and it’s another world.”
With his unexpected progress to the Queen’s final, the prospect of returning to World No 1 ahead of Wimbledon has suddenly arisen. Alcaraz revealed it unlocked something else: a fire and drive that the tennis world has become so accustomed to, but that grass had yet to see. “It is an extra motivation for me,” Alcaraz said, “To go into the final with extra energy. I’m gonna go for it. Obviously being top seed at Wimbledon, being No 1, for me, it’s still a dream. It’s something that I work on, to recover the No 1. I think Novak and I, we are having a beautiful fight.”
De Minaur will be another test. The 24-year-old is the first Australian to reach the Queen’s final since Lleyton Hewitt and De Minaur’s gritty, determined game, quick movement across the court and flat hitting is reminiscent of the former Wimbledon champion. De Minaur has looked sharp at Queen’s since defeating Andy Murray in the opening round but produced his performance of the week so far to advance past the second seed Holger Rune, the 20-year-old Dane who has made solid progress on the grass ahead of Wimbledon but still looks a long way short of Alcaraz’s level.
“Carlos, he’s finding his footing on grass and playing some great tennis,” said De Minaur. The Australian is happiest on the surface, which he says helps him to play a more aggressive game from the baseline. “Alex, he’s playing great,” Alcaraz said. “He has a game that suits really well on grass. It’s going to be a really tough final. I’m gonna say he’s the favourite with the level that he’s playing right now. All I can say is I’m gonna enjoy it, I’m gonna enjoy my first final on grass, and let’s see what happens.”