Djokovic masters Alcaraz, plants a fresh flag for the Big Three
The Serb showed supreme control to win the much-anticipated French Open semi-final in four sets
A little rider invariably tagged along with Carlos Alcaraz during his awe-inspiring and largely opponent-crushing drive to the top of men’s tennis over the last year: Can he do it in a best-of-five marathon against one of the Big Three?
Novak Djokovic, the lone-riding member of men’s tennis exclusive club at this French Open, had the answer for the 20-year-old: Not yet, kid.
In re-establishing his stranglehold on younger hopefuls out to challenge his authority in Grand Slams, Djokovic doused the exuberant Alcaraz’s fire in a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 semi-final victory on Friday. In halting the 2022 US Open champion’s 12-match undefeated Slam run, Djokovic maintained order in the Big Three versus Gen Next storyline and his quest for a record 23rd Grand Slam crown.
For two sets, it was a brutal yet beautiful battle that matched the hype and wait of over a year since the last time Djokovic and Alcaraz met, with the latter winning. But playing the 36-year-old in a Grand Slam is as much a test of the body as it is of the mind and skill. That’s where the Spaniard, seemingly cramping in the legs early in the third set to never recover his movement or magic on court thereafter, fell short on a warm Paris afternoon.
One that began with Djokovic setting the tone early against an on-song and in-form world No. 1. He broke early in the fourth game after a crafty point finished clinically at the net. Djokovic came out with tactics in place and answers in sync to Alcaraz’s variety, winning more of the net duels. The ever-smiling Alcaraz showed signs of frustration and an irritable body language that wasn’t the same as throughout the tournament.
The game though was. At the start of the second set, Alcaraz scrambled back from the net and hit the ball from behind the baseline almost with his back turned for a forehand passing winner that left even Djokovic raising his arms in appreciation. A medical timeout by Djokovic affected his solid serving and sure enough, Alcaraz converted the first of his six break points for 5-3. His body a bit off but battle-hardened mind on, Djokovic broke right back with a blistering backhand winner and saved three set points to hold from 0-40 in the next game. Against an opponent persistent in pouncing on the attack, that couldn’t happen twice. Djokovic was unable to get out of another 0-40 hole on his serve as Alcaraz came out from the set roaring.
The buzz quickly made way for lull. Alcaraz held his right calf after landing after a forehand return in the third game of the third set. Unable to move, he chose to take on-court treatment for what appeared to be cramp at the cost of losing points (medical timeouts can only be at change of ends or between sets). He stepped on to play again, forfeiting one game to Djokovic, who needed no favours thereon. The big-match mentality of the Serb, much like his Big Three colleagues Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in their Grand Slam triumphs, seldom does on such occasions.
In an unmatched era of men’s tennis mesmerised by three men, talk of transfer in the power balance has been brewing for years. Yet, over the last decade as the now-retired Federer, nearing-retirement Nadal and Djokovic grew finer with age, only six other men on nine occasions have managed to hold a Grand Slam.
With an entire bunch of Gen Next players—Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem—turned Gen now, nicknames of Baby Federer had been formed and faded, but the trio kept pushing each other and the boundaries of greatness.
Then an ever-smiling Spanish teen came along and things got serious. Alcaraz’s steep rise met with a stunning US Open title (without Djokovic around and Nadal out early, that is) and the world No. 1 tag last year, months after striking victories over Nadal and Djokovic in consecutive matches.
But can he do it in a best-of-five marathon against one of the Big Three?
Djokovic in Slams and Djokovic anywhere else is like the current Australian pace attack in English conditions and on Indian soil. It is relentless, brimming with champion mentality and physical reserves. Despite the odd losses to his younger challengers in ATP tournaments around the world, Djokovic in his Slam territory therefore remains largely untouched.
Alcaraz walked on to Phillipe Court Philippe-Chatrier for his second meeting with Djokovic carrying happy memories of having beaten him in the first. Djokovic though carries no baggage in a Grand Slam and, in beating Alcaraz in the French Open semi-final, continues to carry the Big Three flag.