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In Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz's second classic in as many months, the legend, rather than the phenom, had the final word
“One of the toughest and most exciting matches I’ve been a part of,” said the Serbian after a 3:49, three-set final at the Western & Southern Open.
Published Aug 21, 2023
"No criticisms on either side": Andy Roddick, Chanda Rubin react to Djokovic-Alcaraz Cincinnati war
MASON, Ohio—From the upper seats in the main stadium at the Western & Southern Open, you can look across Interstate 71 and see the King’s Island amusement park. All day, roller coasters slowly rise to towering heights, before crashing wildly back to earth.
By Sunday evening, the park was closed and motionless. The thrill ride was on the other side of the highway.
That’s where Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz were coming to the end of their two-man, three-hour-and-49-minute roller-coaster journey through a 90-degree afternoon. The Serb and the Spaniard had carried the 11,000 people surrounding center court through countless twists and turns in momentum, and just as many physical and emotional peaks and valleys.
Thousands of people chanted “No-lay!” for the legendary Djokovic, who was playing here for the first time since 2019, and who had been welcomed back to the United States enthusiastically. Thousands of others countered with chants of “Vamos Carlos!” for the galvanizing new superstar Alcaraz, who had proclaimed his love for Cincinnati and its fans all week.
By the time the two men reached a third-set tiebreaker, after 8:00 P.M., the chants had blended into one titanic, chaotic, incomprehensible roar. Which was fitting, because by then the match wasn’t about one man or the other. It was about the two best players in the world rising to the occasion against each other, again. Whoever you were rooting for, you had to appreciate the moment, and the chance to experience it.
“Ups and downs, highs and lows, incredible points, poor games, heat strokes,” Djokovic said afterward, in awe of what he had just survived. “One of the toughest matches and most exciting matches I’ve ever been a part of, at any level, against any opponent.”
For the first hour and a half, though, it had looked more like a bust than a classic in the making. The heat took an early toll on the 36-year-old Djokovic, who squandered a 4-2 lead in the first set and trudged off for a prolonged bathroom break after losing it 7-5.
The locker-room time didn’t help him. In the second set, he sat down heavily on a changeover, wrapped an ice towel around his head, and took a pill from the tour medics. Instead of a repeat of their Wimbledon epic, this match looked like their Roland Garros semifinal in reverse. In Paris, Alcaraz cramped and the match came to an anticlimactic conclusion. In Cincy, it seemed as if Djokovic’s body would be the one to capitulate.
With Djokovic serving at 2-4 in the second, Alcaraz sent a perfect topspin lob dive-bombing down for a winner. It looked like a second break was in the works, and the match would soon be over. But Djokovic, the wiliest of wily veterans, managed to use the only thing he had left—his serve—to manufacture a hold. It was just enough to stay in touch on the scoreboard, and just enough, it turned out, to make Alcaraz nervous. At 4-3, Alcaraz opened the door with four wild unforced errors. Djokovic was alive.
From there, the match began to simmer. The rallies lengthened, and Djokovic rejoined the battle. With newfound energy, he held at love for 5-5. Alcaraz, shaking off his nerves again, held with a winning volley to force a tiebreaker. Djokovic jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the breaker; Alcaraz responded by winning the next four points.
It was about the two best players in the world rising to the occasion against each other, again. Whoever you were rooting for, you had to appreciate the moment, and the chance to experience it.
Alcaraz reached match point at 6-5, but Djokovic saved it with a strong serve and forehand. Finally, at 8-7, Djokovic had his second set point. Though a long tug-of-war rally, the tension in the stadium rose with each swing, until Alcaraz hit a cannon-like forehand into the net. The stadium exploded.
The match reached full boil in the third. Alcaraz knocked Djokovic back with rifle forehands, and sent him scrambling forward with drop shots. Djokovic moved father behind the baseline, and drove his familiarly grooved ground strokes from corner to corner. Both guys mixed flat and kick first serves, and followed them to net at surprise moments. Both shifted smoothly from full-blooded power to delicate touch and back again.
At 3-3, Djokovic broke Alcaraz’s serve after a long game, on his fifth break point. At 5-3, he reached match point twice, but this time it was Alcaraz’s turn to stay alive against the odds. On Djokovic’s second match point, he came forward and angled off a volley that looked as if it would win him the title. But Alcaraz got there in time to thread a perfect passing shot into the corner for a stunning winner. Now the stadium exploded for him.
A game later, serving at 5-4, Djokovic had another match point—his fourth, by this point—and Alcaraz hit another jaw-dropping, explosion-inspiring forehand winner, on his way to breaking serve.
If any final deserved a third-set tiebreaker, it was this one. Again Djokovic jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Again, he couldn’t shake Alcaraz, who leveled it at 3-3 with a beautiful drop volley.
Then, at 4-4, after more than three-and-a-half hours and 260 points, they reached the one that effectively decided it. Alcaraz reached back and fired a 130-m.p.h. serve. Djokovic met it squarely with his two-handed backhand and sent it back nearly as hard. With that shot, the momentum had swung in his direction for a final time. Djokovic won that point, and the next two to complete a 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) victory.
When it was over, Djokovic lay on his back, in disbelief at his win. Alcaraz stood and stared at the court beneath him, in disbelief at his defeat. A minute later on the sidelines, Djokovic doused his head with water, as Alcaraz fought back tears.
Djokovic compared playing Alcaraz to playing a countryman of his.
“The feeling that I have on the court reminds me a little bit when I was facing Nadal when we were at our prime of our careers,” said Djokovic, who ripped his shirt off afterward, the way he had ripped it off after winning another marathon, the 2012 Australian Open final, over Rafa.
“Each point is a hustle. Each point is a battle. You feel like you’re not going to get maybe in total five free points in the entire match. You’ve got to basically earn every single point, every single shot, regardless of the conditions.”
Alcaraz says he still has lots to learn from Djokovic, and maybe that’s where he can improve. Up a set and a break, he did give Djokovic a series of free points that allowed him back into the match.
Despite the tears on court, though, Alcaraz was happy to be part of another memorable occasion with Djokovic.
“I feel proud of myself, honestly,” Alcaraz said. “I was talking and I don’t know why I was crying because I fight until the last ball. I almost beat one of the greatest of all time from our sport.
“It’s crazy to talk about it right now, but I left the court really, really happy what I did.”
Who needs an amusement park when you have tennis like this?
“It's a crazy match that we've been through today,’ Djokovic said in summation. “A roller coaster.”