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One Incredible Match: Carlos Alcaraz awestruck after vanquishing Novak Djokovic in Madrid classic
Alcaraz beat Djokovic in a much-anticipated first meeting in Madrid, doing what veterans champions do, getting better—and not tighter—when it mattered most.
Published May 07, 2022
WATCH: Alcaraz was nearly speechless after overcoming the world No. 1 in their first meeting.
The semifinal between Carlos Alcaraz vs. Novak Djokovic in Madrid was the most anticipated first meeting of the ATP season.
It pitted the current No. 1 player vs. the teenager who most people believe will occupy that spot at some point, possibly very soon. It featured the defending Roland Garros champion vs. one of the two top-tier contenders for that throne in 2022. It was a chance for a young player to show that he could be a worthy successor to Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, by becoming the first person to beat them back-to-back on clay—in front of his home fans, to boot.
It’s safe to say, after Alcaraz’s 6-7 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) win, in three hours and 35 minutes, that the match and his performance lived to up to all of those expectations, and may have added a few more for the future.
Alcaraz and Djokovic punched and counterpunched with their forehands, backhands, and drop shots all afternoon. Over and over they scrambled and slid from alley to alley, and from baseline to net. They played dozens of long, drawn-out, hard-fought games, but only surrendered their serves three times. Their levels went up and down, they let golden opportunities slip, and each made more errors than winners; but after the middle of the first set, neither let the other build a lead of more than a game. Each man looked ready to cave physically and mentally at different moments, but neither did. Each lost a close set, and bounced back to take the next one. Alcaraz won 134 points, Djokovic 131.
“It was a fantastic match,” said Djokovic, who has experienced more than his share of them over the last 17 years. “Great battle.”
Honestly I don’t know the difference. It was so close. He had chances to break my serve at the end of the second set. Both of us played an incredible match. Carlos Alcaraz
What was the difference in the end? Why, when it was over, did Alcaraz get to bask in the crowd’s chants, while Djokovic hurried away, head down, in frustrated defeat? Don’t ask the Spaniard.
“Honestly I don’t know the difference,” Alcaraz said. “It was so close. He had chances to break my serve at the end of the second set. Both of us played an incredible match.”
Djokovic also focused on his missed chances in the second set. At that stage it seemed likely, after he had weathered an early Alcaraz storm and come back from 2-4 down to steal the first set, that the veteran would shut the door on the teenager. In truth, though, it wasn’t Djokovic who failed to put the kid away; it was the kid who had the answers when it mattered.
At 3-3 in the second set, Djokovic reached 30-30; Alcaraz hit two straight drop shot winners. At 4-4, Djokovic reached break point; Alcaraz hit a service winner. At 5-5, Djokovic reached break point again; Alcaraz foiled him again with another drop shot.
“He held his nerves very well,” Djokovic said. “For somebody of his age to play so maturely and courageously is impressive.”
In the third set, both men fell behind on their serves, and both found ways to survive. Alcaraz did it with drop shots, high-kicking serves into the ad court, and wrong-footing forehands. Djokovic did it with big first serves, surprising second serves, great gets, backhand winners, and, when he faced a match point at 4-5, a blistering ace.
Finally, it came down, as it had to, a third-set tiebreaker. This might have seemed like the moment when Djokovic would go into his famous lockdown mode, and teach the teen a lesson in big-stage tennis. Instead, it was Alcaraz who reined in his sometimes-wild shot selection, and hit with more clarity and accuracy than he had all day. He hit a swing-volley winner to go up 1-0; he hit a down-the-line backhand winner to go up 3-1; he hit a big forehand to go up 4-2. And he hit a forehand winner on match point to clinch it. The errors that had plagued him earlier (he made 58 on the day) had vanished.
While Alcaraz was locking down, Djokovic was losing some control. He missed backhand return long to go down 3-5, and a regulation forehand long to go down 4-6. He said he had trouble with Alcaraz’s spins in the thin Madrid air.
“Many times I gave him free points there,” Djokovic said. “His kick [at] altitude here is huge, and it was just difficult to deal with his ball, and I wasn’t feeling my return from [the backhand] side.”
“Just yeah, wasn’t able to capitalize when it mattered. He did. Congrats to him.”
Yet all was not lost for Djokovic. “I think it’s on the good path, definitely,” he said of his game. He showed he can handle a long match physically, and by staying with Alcaraz, he showed he can stay with the most in-form player on tour—that’s saying something right now.
Alcaraz, the 19-year-old, did what veteran champions do. He made 81 percent of his first serves in the final set. He was 13 of 17 at net. He won his sixth straight match over a Top 10 opponent. Perhaps most tellingly, he ran his record in deciding-set tiebreakers to 10-2. He got better, rather than tighter, at the end.
Afterward, he was asked what he’ll take away from this win.
“I’m thinking I’m able to play against the best players in the world,” Alcaraz said, “to beat them as well.”
More practically, he also said that “this match [gives me] a lot of confidence to play the final.”
Oh yeah, that’s right: Alcaraz has beaten Nadal and Djokovic, but he hasn’t won the tournament yet. He’ll try to do that on Sunday. I wouldn’t bet against him.