“That’s a shot you would have stuck your house on Djokovic making,” one of the commentators calling the Serbia Open final said, after a forehand pass from the ATP No. 1 found the bottom of the net on Sunday.

It was true. Djokovic seemed to have everything set up for another crowd-pleasing comeback win in front of his hometown fans, this time against Andrey Rublev. As he had in his previous three matches this week, Djokovic had lost the first set, before scratching and clawing, huffing and puffing, and finally fist-pumping his way through a second-set tiebreaker, to the immense delight of the audience. Now he was up 15-40 on Rublev’s serve to start the third set.

But even as Djokovic’s game was improving, his physical condition was deteriorating. He hunched over over after long rallies, and walked slowly and heavily between points. Two weeks earlier in Monte Carlo, Djokovic, who will turn 35 in May, ran out of gas in a third set against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, a development that even he found concerning.

In Belgrade, he had survived tough three-setters against Laslo Djere, Miomir Kecmanovic, and Karen Khachanov. But just when he seemed to have raised his fitness to an adequate level against Rublev, he ran out of gas again. That missed forehand pass at the start of the third set was a harbinger: By the third game, Djokovic was barely moving, and he ended up surrendering a rare bagel set in a 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-0 loss to Rublev.


Serbia Tennis

Serbia Tennis

Djokovic said his collapse was a “bit worrisome,” and attributed it, possibly, to a recent illness. At the same time, he said he was happy to have won three matches from a set down.

But should he be happy with that? This tournament was reminiscent of his US Open run last year. In New York, Djokovic dropped the first set in the second round, third round, fourth round, quarterfinals, and semifinals, before bouncing back to win each time. But all of that extra effort caught up with him in his straight-set loss to Daniil Medvedev in the final. The same thing happened against Rublev today. At 35, Djokovic will need to be as efficient as he can be going forward.

Of course, he was also facing a top-tier opponent in Rublev. While Carlos Alcaraz is far and away the leading candidate for the ATP’s Most Improved Player award this season, Rublev has quietly made his own progress. After a disappointing second half to 2021, the Russian has won three titles this season, two on hard courts and now one on clay. He also won a respectable number of second-serve points—typically his weak link—against Djokovic, and was more dangerous from the backhand side than he has been in the past. And just when you thought he might implode after losing the second set to Djokovic, he dug a little deeper.

On this day, Rublev had an extra gear that Djokovic couldn’t find. We’ll see if that’s a sign of things to come later this spring.


INTERVIEW: Andrey Rublev after his win over Novak Djokovic


There was one point in Sunday’s Porsche Grand Prix final that served as a good summation of what it’s like to face Iga Swiatek right now.

Swiatek had won the first set over Aryna Sabalenka, in the routine 6-2 fashion we’ve come to expect from the WTA’s new No. 1. Now Sabalenka, after making 18 unforced errors in the first eight games, was attempting a second-set reset. Or at least she was hoping to attempt a second-set reset.

Sabalenka went on the attack in the opening games, hit with more power, and ran Swiatek across the baseline. There was only one problem: The harder Sabalenka hit the ball, the harder, and more accurately, it came back. Swiatek held her ground, refused to back up, and turned Sabalenka’s pace against her. Instead of finding herself dictating play, it was Sabalenka who was doing most of the running. At the end of one rally, after watching Swiatek return everything with interest, Sabalenka finally appeared to raise the white flag. She couldn’t even finish her final backhand swing, and just slapped the ball limply and resignedly into the net. The second set had just begum, but the match was already over. Swiatek would win it 6-2, 6-2 for her 23rd straight victory, fourth straight tournament title, and first on clay this season.




Swiatek says she has tried to swing more freely and play more aggressively this year. There’s nothing remarkable about that; it’s what every player says they’re trying to do. What is remarkable is how Swiatek has done it without sacrificing any consistency. At the moment, she has mastered the middle ground: She hits with pace and purpose, but also with margin and control. She takes aggressive swings on what would be defensive shots for just about anyone else. Even low-percentage shots into the corners appear to be perfectly measured. Whether it was an angled forehand volley, a backhand down-the-line winner, or a forehand off the short-hop, Swiatek had an answer for whatever Sabalenka threw at her.

“I worked hard this week to adjust properly and to play my best tennis on this surface,” said Swiatek, who was coming off a three-set semifinal win over Ludmilla Samsonova 24 hours earlier. “I’m pretty proud of myself and pretty proud of my team because basically after yesterday’s match, it wasn’t easy to reset physically and mentally and be ready for today.”

This is what No. 1 players do. They’re not supposed to be satisfied with making finals. At 20, Swiatek is obviously not daunted by the pressure that comes with being expected to win every match and every event she enters. When Sabalenka finally did hit a blazing forehand past Swiatek on Sunday, she raised her arm in celebration, as if she had just achieved a lifelong goal.

That’s what it’s like to face Iga Swiatek right now.

I’m not scared of fame. I’m not going to change the person I am. Carlos Alcaraz


Carlos Alcaraz was out of Barcelona. He was one simple swing, into the most open of open courts, away from defeat.

Alex de Minaur led his semifinal with the young Spaniard 7-6 (4), 6-5, 40-15, and had a short forehand in front of him. Alcaraz was scrambling to get back to the center of the court, but there was still plenty of territory for De Minaur to hit into. Over the course of two close and intense sets, the Australian had out-run, out-played, and out-maneuvered Alcaraz when it mattered most. But faced with a chance to end the match and send the crowd favorite home, De Minaur became conservative. Instead of aiming for a corner, he hit his approach shot straight up the middle of the court.

At first, it seemed as if this would be good enough to win him the point anyway. Surprised by De Minaur’s shot location, Alcaraz got his body turned around, and had to hit his forehand pass while backpedaling away from the ball. But this is 2022, and this is Carlos Alcaraz, and you know what that means. The ball somehow found its way around De Minaur at the net and into the corner for an unlikely, seat-of-his-pants winner. Shaken a bit, De Minaur put his next backhand into the net. The crowd roared, Alcaraz broke, and an hour or so later, he was into the final.

Played over two days and more than three hours, the semifinal was the longest best-of-three-set match of the ATP season so far. It was also one of the most furiously contested and athletically dazzling. And then, when it was over and Alcaraz had won, he had to go out and do it all over in the final against his friend Pablo Carreño Busta a few hours later. Was there any doubt that the 18-year-old would pull off the Sunday double? Again, this is 2022, and this is Carlos Alcaraz. He knocked off PCB 6-3, 6-2 without showing even a hint of weariness.

“I’ve watched this tournament since I was a kid,” Alcaraz said. “I always wished to play in this tournament and of course to be able to win this tournament.”

Spain ATP Godo Final Tennis

Spain ATP Godo Final Tennis


Alcaraz is still a kid, of course, in the way he plays and celebrates and laughs. And despite all of his success, he still have some things to learn, too. He has an excellent drop shot, but he has a tendency to hit it too often, from too far back in the court, and it cost him on some big points against the speedy De Minaur. In the final, though, Alcaraz appeared to have learned his lesson. He didn’t go to the drop-shot well as often. He was content to drill forehands from one corner to the other; it’s a simple game plan, and it may even seem monotonous to Alcaraz, but Carreño Busta had no answer for it. Even PCB was surprised and impressed by the single-mindedness of Alcaraz’s attack.

“It wasn’t the match I expected,” Carreño Busta said. “Carlos was playing a very aggressive game this afternoon and he was very effective. It was very difficult to play against him today.”

Rafael Nadal won the first of his 11 titles in Barcelona at 18, and the last of them in 2021. With this win, Alcaraz picks up where his countryman left off, and reaffirms himself as a contender for Rafa’s customary crown in Paris. He seems, rightfully, pleased with his progress.

“I’m not scared of fame,” Alcaraz said. “I’m not going to change the person I am. I’m happy to know that at 18 years old I’m in the Top 10, and to do it the same age as my idol Rafa is impressive.”

We couldn’t have said it any better ourselves.