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Novak Djokovic saves championship point in thrilling Cincinnati final win over Carlos Alcaraz
The budding rivalry is now tied at two matches apiece, heading into the US Open.
Published Aug 21, 2023
MATCH POINT: How Novak Djokovic finally beat Carlos Alcaraz in the Cincinnati Masters final
In their third meeting this season, on a third different surface, Novak Djokovic ended a thrilling trilogy with Carlos Alcaraz on top: 2-1 in matches, and 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) in Sunday's Western & Southern Open final.
As the world's top two players leave steamy Cincinnati (today's temperatures were officially in the 90s, but felt more like 100 degrees Fahrenheit) for flashy New York, we're left to wonder if another trilogy—collisions at each of the year's final three majors—could conclude at the US Open.
Based on what we've seen, an encounter between the defending champion and the 23-time Grand Slam titlist would be too close to call.
Despite playing four three-set matches in Cincy—in sharp contrast to Djokovic's streamlined path to the final—Alcaraz was the fresher of the two competitors in brutal summer heat. That physical edge would materialize after the two traded service holds, a break of serve and wondrous groundstrokes, with their respective fans voicing their passionate support, through 10 games of a tight first set.
It all crumbled quickly for Djokovic, though, at 5-5. With Alcaraz returning at 15-40, Djokovic did well to get to deuce. But two points later, Alcaraz snagged the game, and this clash took a sharp turn in his favor.
"Just barely moving his feet," Jim Courier said about a flagging Djokovic after a wayward service return from the Serb at 30-30. A point later, Alcaraz finished off the first set with a heat-seeking forehand winner.
The match stayed firmly in Alcaraz's direction until he served at 4-3 in the second, the victory nearly in sight. In that game, five points were contested, and four unforced errors leaked from the Spaniard's racquet. A weary Djokovic was given a reprieve, a desperately needed break of serve.
Revitalized, Djokovic held, then threatened Alcaraz in his next service game. Soon it was 5-5, just like in the first set.
And then it was 5-5 for a third time: in the second-set tiebreaker. With Alcaraz serving, Djokovic did well to return a body serve, but a few shots later, his forehand found the net. Championship point, Alcaraz.
Championship point saved, Djokovic. (Wide serve, followed by deep return that a scrambling Alcaraz couldn't get back.)
"I don't think he's ever volleyed better," Courier said after the next point, in which two delicate shots earned Djokovic a set point—one that Alcaraz would save.
But the Wimbledon champion couldn't save a second, at 8-7. This time, it was Djokovic at his rock-solid best, playing a magnificently patient point that baited Alcaraz into going for too much:
"It feels like the momentum is on his side," Courier said after Djokovic took the first point of Alcaraz's service game at 3-3 in the third. Sure enough, Alcaraz—who had just saved two break points in his previous service game—double faulted to hand Djokovic a 0-30 lead.
Two points later, Alcaraz stared two more Djokovic break points in the face. Again, he saved them both.
Then, he saved a third. And then a fourth.
But not a fifth.
You would think, then, that after Djokovic went on to earn four championship points—two while returning at 5-3, two while serving at 5-4—that Alcaraz would be unable to muster adequate resistance.
You would be incorrect.
The 20-year-old saved one in utterly spectacular fashion (a curling pass around a net-hugging Novak), one with a laser forehand winner, even one via double fault.
"This match was a war attrition for quite some time," said Courier during what would become the longest best-of-three-set ATP Masters 1000 final, at 3:49. "Now it's a good, old-fashioned tennis war."
But ultimately—in a final-set tiebreaker—Alcaraz was unable to raise his game enough against his now-principal rival. It's a rivalry that, like a great television show, leaves us wanting more after each episode.
"Tennis has been in amazing hands for the last 15 years or so," said Courier. "It's got another."
Should these two meet for the fourth consecutive tournament they're both entered in, at Flushing Meadows, conditions will likely not be as stifling, and rest should not be an issue, given the event's day-on, day-off schedule.
Bring it on.