For almost half a year, it was a rivalry that could never happen. World No. 1 genius against the greatest player of all time.
Then, like a river breaking a dam, summer brought confrontation every month; On clay, then grass, then on hard courts. A wonderful and versatile gift from the tennis gods. One of them, an epic five-set duel that lasted nearly five hours, took place on the biggest stage in the game and transcended the sport, the hype spreading across oceans as the drama mounted, and the audience filled with people who rarely watch a television show. Tennis match while keeping their eyes open on the screen.
It was therefore fitting that there would be a final meeting this season between the King and the Crown Prince, in a final tournament in which only the best of the best were allowed, on another surface, an indoor hard court. The way this year has gone, it is also fitting that Novak Djokovic, 36, the world number one, heads into 2024 with a clear advantage over Carlos Alcaraz, 20, who is desperate to replace him.
Djokovic broke Alcaraz three times, but more importantly, he broke his morale, sending the usually lively talent to a racket toss and a discussion session with his coach.
“He brings out the best in me,” Djokovic said, likening the challenge Alcaraz faces to his battles with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. “He makes me prepare for the match as best as I can, and that’s where I would compare myself to Federer and Nadal. I had to step up every time at my peak to beat them.
Playing in a fast, climate-controlled environment that almost always seems to bring out the best in him, Djokovic deftly and skillfully worked his way to a convincing straight-sets win, dismantling his emerging rival in a kind of slugfest 6-3. 6-2 in the ATP Finals – virtually ensuring that the irresistible narrative of this tale, the chase of Alcaraz, will survive into 2024.
“I want to beat this guy. I want to be the best in history,” said a distraught Alcaraz after the loss. “What he does is unbelievable, he breaks records and wins every tournament he enters. This is madness.”
The most memorable rivalries have the power to describe a small era of the sport and the grappling styles of the day, evoking the tennis zeitgeist with two words and a hyphen: Evert-Navratilova; Sampras Agassi; Federer Nadal. They can take several years to mature and reach their ideal status, attracting the new eyeballs that are the lifeblood of any sport along the way.
Because of the age difference, Djokovic and Alcaraz will not have the luxury of time. All they have to do now is bring to their intergenerational duels a fast-paced urgency to catch it while it lasts.
They know this as well as anyone, and even train together sometimes, most recently in Paris last month. One rising star, in his best moments, takes the sport to new heights and plays a game no one knows about. The other uses all the fingertip strength and body dexterity of an expert rock climber scaling Half Dome to cling to his grip on the toy that has obsessed him since childhood.
Djokovic, once a young boy who grew up with bombs falling all around him in the war-torn Balkans, now has gray spots in his life. Alcaraz, a prodigy whose father was a professional and whose grandfather built a tennis club, has a jaw and cheeks that still move during adolescence.
Although he has his aggressive moments, Djokovic remains the ultimate tactician and counter-hitter. A finely tuned, albeit high-maintenance, Formula 1 race car. Alcaraz comes into the game from the other pole, learning to blend nuance with his default modes of strength and vitality; The first generation bullet train is still prone to accidents and breakdowns but is capable of breaking speed records.
He grew up with a poster of Roger Federer on his bedroom wall. But last month he admitted there was something of an obsession with Djokovic, a 24-time Grand Slam champion who has reclaimed the No. 1 ranking with his latest relentless tactical assault at the top of the game.
After all these years, and all the superiority he has gained, Djokovic has never been so reckless as to admit that any opponent, let alone one much younger than himself, would take up space in his mind. But it didn’t take a doctorate in psychology to understand the meaning of his words at the French Open earlier this year, where Alcaraz was one win away from his first Grand Slam match.
“This is the match that a lot of people want to see,” he said. “Definitely a guy to beat here. I’m looking forward to it.”
Last year, as his rivals (Federer) retired and (Nadal) declined, Djokovic searched for the next source of motivation. There’s a race for the most Grand Slam titles, but tennis players are set to battle it out with another human being.
Djokovic was unable to play the American hard court swing due to his decision not to get vaccinated against Covid-19. While he remained stuck at home in Europe, the world fell in love with Alcaraz, who stormed to the US Open, winning his first Grand Slam title with a charismatic smile and a delightful, gasp-inducing enthusiasm that is not in Djokovic’s wheelhouse.
Putting out the early flames of someone else, especially a spirited teenager whose career was the steepest and fastest climb to the top the sport has ever seen… well, that was all the motivation he needed.
In his world, torches do not pass. They are snatched away.
Or they don’t.
Doomed to a loose forehand on Saturday night and unable to find his timing with Djokovic taking possession too early, Alcaraz and his signature style proved no match for Djokovic, who somehow accepted the challenge and used it to produce some of the best tennis ever. His life.
On Thursday night, after a three-set win over Hubert Hurkacz that saw him come closer than he should have, Djokovic knew there was a good chance his Tour season would be over. He won two of his first three quarterfinal matches, but dropped sets in each of his victories, pushing him to the brink of elimination. He needed Jannik Sinner, who beat him on Tuesday, to knock out Holger Rönn to stay alive.
Disturbed by the loss of control over his fate, he said he planned to have dinner with his family and perhaps go swimming in the hotel pool with the children. He wasn’t planning to watch the game. Mentally, he already looked like he was in his car on his way home to Monte Carlo, 100 miles to the south.
“I’m just thinking about hugging my kids right now,” he said.
Twenty hours later, Siner saved him, and a match with Alcaraz appeared on the horizon. Djokovic and his deadly gaze are back at Bala Alpitur, where he has been training hard with his coach Marco Panici.
Family dinner and swimming seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind.
Heading into Saturday night, neither Alcaraz nor Djokovic were able to pull off back-to-back wins over the other. Their first meeting, in Madrid in 2022, went to Alcaraz in a third-set tiebreak and torched Djokovic for more than a year. Presumably, players will need several losses against him before they adapt to the uniqueness of the challenge he presents. Alcaraz found out in the afternoon.
They were away from each other for another 13 months. Losses and injuries in the learning process of caraz. He missed tournaments due to vaccine requirements for Djokovic.
Then came Djokovic’s technical knockout in the French Open semifinals. Alcaraz, then ranked No. 1 in the world, succumbed to full-body nervous spasms in his first real moment against the greatest player of all time on a huge stage.
“Part of the learning curve,” Djokovic said. “It’s part of the experience. He’s only 20.”
Alcaraz promised it would never happen again and spent the next month practicing relaxation exercises and talking about his fears with his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, who tried to make him understand these moments as opportunities to show his greatness. Within a few points of falling two sets down, Alcaraz turned some of Djokovic’s errors into a lifeline, then pulled the same trick two hours later in the deciding set, denying Djokovic an eighth Wimbledon title.
Carlitos’ advantage — for five weeks, until Djokovic equalized on a sweaty night in Cincinnati, a four-hour battle that former world No. 1-turned-tennis commentator Jim Courier described as the best three-set match he had ever seen.
Saturday night in Turin was far from that.
Djokovic ended Alcaraz’s season with a decisive victory, which the Spanish player said would be greater than all of their bilateral confrontations during the off-season. It came with a few points in the second set, as Alcaraz fought for his life, running from corner to corner to corner, then unleashing those rocket forehands as he tried to grab the edge, only for Djokovic to chase down enough of them to finish them off. Hope comes out of him, he puffs out his chest and stands before the roar of the crowd. This is (almost) always the case.
There’s always next year for Alcaraz. In a competition that defines the sport like this, that’s all anyone wants.
(Top image: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images)
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