Britons affectionately refer to the world’s most hallowed tennis grounds as “SW19,” after the All England Club’s London postal code. So it seemed fitting that, as play at Wimbledon kicked off Monday, plenty of attention here in the city’s southwest was focused on a pair of 19-year-olds.
On the women’s side is homegrown sensation Emma Raducanu, who seemingly burst out of nowhere to reach the fourth round of last year’s tournament and then went on to win the U.S. Open, sparking national jubilation in Britain. Despite some forgettable matches since, as well as a worrisome injury earlier this month, those achievements have propelled Raducanu to a career-high No. 11 ranking.
On the men’s side, her fellow 19-year-old prodigy is Carlos Alcaraz, a Spaniard who has won four tournaments this year, including two elite Masters 1000 tournaments. At one of those Masters events, in Madrid, Alcaraz became the only player in history to defeat both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the same clay-court tournament.
The buzz around Raducanu and Alcaraz has helped fuel interest in this year’s Wimbledon fortnight, the first at full strength — at least for spectators — since the start of the pandemic. There was an unprecedented cancellation in 2020 and a pared-back version last year. Player-wise, the tournament lacks anyone from Russia and Belarus, following its controversial decision to ban contestants from those countries because of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, meaning that men’s No. 1 Daniil Medvedev, among others, is absent.
Medvedev took out Alcaraz in the second round last year after the Spaniard gained entry as a wild-card player and outlasted his first-round opponent in the first five-set match of his career. Since then, Alcaraz has become one of tennis’ most exciting stories, breaking into the top 10 in April — the youngest male to do so since Nadal in 2005 — and climbing to No. 6 briefly last month before slipping down to No. 7.
“The ranking for me right now is, like, secondary,” Alcaraz said on the eve of Wimbledon. “I’m trying not to think too much about the ranking right now.”
Instead, he had his hands full Monday with an opening-round match against 32-year-old Jan-Lennard Struff, an unseeded German who beat Alcaraz in their only previous match, at last year’s French Open. An elbow injury had forced Alcaraz to withdraw from a warmup tournament, giving him no preparation on grass after a busy and successful clay-court season.
“For me, [to] move well on grass is the hardest thing,” he said, adding that he would continue to try to play aggressively and charge the net.
Befitting Alcaraz’s No. 7 seeding, the match against Struff was fought on one of Wimbledon’s show courts, Court No. 1, whose closed roof allowed the two hard hitters to play despite rain that at times pounded so loudly overhead that their racquet strikes, Alcaraz’s grunts and the line calls were drowned out. It was a seesaw affair, with Alcaraz clinching a break after four hours of play to serve out a final game that featured a glorious forehand winner and an ace — the last of 30 — for a 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 victory.
Playing five-set opening matches at Wimbledon two years in a row “means I love the grass” so much that “I don’t want to leave the court,” Alcaraz quipped afterward.
Raducanu took to Centre Court — the hushed arena that many call the cathedral of tennis — after Djokovic launched a defense of his 2021 title by brushing aside South Korea’s Soonwoo Kwon in four sets, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Now a household name in Britain, where she charmed fans last year by competing at Wimbledon fresh from taking her college entrance exams, Raducanu has performed indifferently of late, losing in the second round of both the year’s previous two Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open and the French Open.
Earlier this month in Nottingham, England, in her first match on home soil as U.S. Open champion, Raducanu retired after barely half an hour’s play in the opening round, raising doubts about her fitness for Wimbledon.
Over the weekend, she said that, despite some concerns, “now it’s full steam ahead. … Right now I’m fit, I’m ready to go, I’m looking forward to it.”
She walked onto Centre Court under the sunshine that finally chased away the rain late Monday afternoon and beat No. 46-ranked Alison van Uytvanck of Belgium, 6-4, 6-4. The match began more than two hours after Alcaraz’s but ended earlier, with Raducanu hitting fewer aces and winners than her opponent but managing to convert four break points.
“It was an amazing experience on Centre Court. It was the first time I played on there,” Raducanu said. “From the moment I walked out through those gates, I could really just feel the energy and the support, and everyone was behind me from the word ‘go.’ …
“Now every time I go back, I’m just going to have a great first experience. That always helps.”