Carlos Alcaraz sinks Ugo Humbert to progress to quarter-finals

It is less than three weeks since Jack Draper showed his fellow left-handers that the way to beat Carlos Alcaraz on grass was to trust the natural southpaw advantages and to “play without fear”. Once he’d conquered his doubts and let his shots flow, the British No 1 joined only seven other lefties among 32 who have tried to beat the Spaniard on the game’s original playing field.

Was the dip at Queen’s on 20 June an aberration? In the early exchanges and more fevered surroundings of Centre Court in the fourth round of the championships, Ugo Humbert might have thought so, as his best efforts died on the racket in his left hand. But, like Draper, he believed, wholeheartedly so. It was not quite enough.

Alcaraz, a 21-year-old clay-courter who has fashioned a game for every surface, soared, was brought crashing back to earth and ultimately prevailed in a mighty struggle.

The defending champion has now beaten all seven lefties he’s played at Wimbledon. Ominously, in the two hours and 58 minutes it took him to win 6-3, 6-4, 1-6, 7-5, Alcaraz several times lifted his tennis from excellent to astounding – and survived a third-set pummelling and a gripping fightback in the fourth.

“Playing lefties is always tricky,” Alcaraz said courtside. “At Queen’s, first on grass [against Draper]. Very difficult, but I just played my own game. I feel great today. I played a really high level. I just had to stay in the point, show my opponent that I’m always going to be there, last ball. Now I will rest a little bit, recovering to be 100% for the next one.”

Left or right, the winning formula on grass invariably turns on sheer power, and there was plenty of that on show on Sunday.

There was another left-hander watching from the Royal Box on day seven, Rod Laver, who once patrolled this court like a king.

Would a peak Laver have confounded Alcaraz? It’s fruitless conjecture – but a thought to ponder as Spain’s new emperor carves his way through the draw. He and Novak Djokovic – 16 years his senior – are the only slam holders left in the men’s singles, and a final between them next weekend would be a fitting battle of the ages.

Jérémy Chardy, Humbert’s coach, felt the power of Alcaraz’s game in the first round here last year, so was more than just another interested onlooker.

Everyone was entranced. An errant shot almost struck a woman in the crowd, who did not spill a drop of her drink. Admirably cool. Would the Frenchman stay similarly calm under pressure from the Spaniard?

It did not seem so when he cracked first, after 20 minutes. The fluidity of Alcaraz’s movement through the shot is phenomenal, the power contained and unleashed as if from the barrel of a gun. And he threatens everywhere from the service line to the net, cruising in and out like a shark.

View image in fullscreen Ugo Humbert won the third set and was a break up in the fourth. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

In the eighth game he hit a 107mph forehand that echoed around the enclosed arena for 40-love – only to see Humbert reply in kind on the next point. However, the world No 16 could do little more than stand and watch as Alcaraz threaded thunderbolts all around him in response to take the first set in 41 minutes. It was an exhilarating onslaught.

This was a different Alcaraz to the one who had to fight back from 1-2 down against Frances Tiafoe in the previous round, but Humbert was proving obdurate.

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Alcaraz needed a pair of aces and a slew of big shots to save four break points in the long fifth game. Humbert came at him again in the seventh, and was similarly repulsed. Now we had a fight.

“As is often the case, Alcaraz finds the solutions,” Tim Henman observed. A delicious slice earned him set point and, when Humbert popped a forehand just over the line at the end of a remarkable rally [during which Alcaraz slipped behind the baseline], the Spaniard was 2-0 up after an hour-and-a-half.

Laver could hardly have asked for better entertainment; Chardy probably enjoyed it less. And the noble Humbert? Shattered, by the look of it – but he remained stubbornly committed and in a counter-attack that caught everyone by surprise – especially Alcaraz – broke three times to take the third set in a few ticks over half an hour.

Humbert trailed by a set, but he oozed self-confidence. He knew no fear.

As nerves rattled at both ends, neither player could hold until the fourth game of the fourth set, when Alcaraz rediscovered his rhythm, having dropped serve four times in a row, to lead 3-1. Victory seemed at hand, but Humbert, who paid no heed to the odds, red-lined to break back.

From love-40 in the eighth game, however, Alcaraz rebuilt his crumbling serve, held through two deuce points and got back in the contest. Trailing in the service cycle, Alcaraz had to hold to stay in the set. An astonishing passing shot that whirred past Humbert forced a raised racket of appreciation from the Frenchman and we were back on an even keel of sorts at five-all.

Alcaraz was now risking trademark clay-court drop shots to good effect, and opened his shoulders on the forehand, as the vigour and sharpness returned to his game under intense pressure. His vicious top-spin landed on the line and he broke to 15.

Humbert call on the crowd for support, and they gave it to him, craving a fifth set – but Alcaraz upped his serve to 132mph and closed it out with a drop shot and an unreturnable serve to his opponent’s backhand – a downside for lefties. It was a match to savour.

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