For nearly half a year, they had an impossible rivalry. The world’s No. 1 child prodigy will face off against arguably the greatest player of all time.
Then, like a river breaking through a dam, summer brought monthly showdowns. Clay courts, then grass courts, then hard courts. A variety of thoughtful gifts from the tennis gods. One of them, an epic five-set duel that lasted nearly five hours, also took place on the game’s biggest stage beyond the sport, and as the drama built, the buzz spread across oceans and spectators rarely watched the matches. It was filled with people who didn’t see it. All eyes are on the tennis match.
It was fitting, then, that the final match of the season between the King and the Crown Prince would take place on yet another surface, an indoor hard court, in a finals tournament where only the best of the best would be allowed. And considering how this year has unfolded, Novak Djokovic, the 36-year-old world No. 1 in the world, will enter 2024 with an overwhelming lead over 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who is desperately trying to replace him. It was only natural that it would become so.
Djokovic broke Alcaraz’s serve three times, but more importantly, he crushed the normally energetic talent by sending him into a violent racket-throwing tirade and intense sessions with his coach.
“He brings out the best in me,” Djokovic said, likening Alcaraz’s challenge to a battle with Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. “He prepares me for matches as best as I can, and that’s where I compare it to Federer and Nadal. To beat them, you always have to be at the peak of your ability. I had to come.”
Playing in a fast, climate-controlled environment where he can almost always bring out his best, Djokovic used hard hitting and finesse to win convincing straight sets, with slow-motion strangleholds. He defeated his budding rival by a score of 6-3. He went 6-2 at the ATP Finals, virtually guaranteeing that this story’s fascinating story and pursuit of Alcaraz will keep him alive until 2024.
“I want to beat this guy. I want to be the best of all time,” said a distraught Alcaraz after the loss. “What he’s doing is unbelievable. He just breaks records and wins every tournament he plays in. It’s crazy.”
The most memorable rivalries have the ability to describe a small era in the sport and the clashing styles of the day, evoking the tennis zeitgeist in two words and a hyphen. Sampras Agassi. Federer vs. Nadal. It takes several years to pickle and reach apotheosis, and in the process incorporates new eyeballs, the lifeblood of any sport.
Djokovic and Alcaraz won’t have that luxury of time because of their age difference. All they have now is to bring a fleeting, better sense of urgency to the duel between generations.
They know it as well as anyone, and even practiced together as recently as last month in Paris. One star is rising and taking the sport to new heights at an already great moment, playing a game that no one knows about. The other uses all the strength of his fingertips and the delicacy of his body as an expert rock climber scales Half Dome to cling to the grip of a game he’s been obsessed with since childhood.
Djokovic, once a boy who grew up surrounded by bombs in the war-torn Balkans, now has gray patches on his stubble. Alcaraz is a genius whose father was a professional tennis player and his grandfather founded a tennis club, and his jawline and cheeks still move even in his adolescence.
Djokovic has his moments of aggression, but he remains the ultimate tactician and counter-puncher. He’s a finely tuned F1 race car, even if it’s high maintenance. Alcaraz approaches the game from the opposite pole, learning how to subtly mix his natural power and frenzy modes. Although first-generation Shinkansen trains are still prone to accidents and breakdowns, they have the potential to break speed records.
He grew up with a poster of Roger Federer on his bedroom wall. But last month he admitted to having some kind of obsession with 24-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic. Djokovic has regained number one in the rankings with modern tactics and a relentless attack on the top of the game.
After all these years and all the advantages he has gained, Djokovic will never be vulnerable enough to admit that any rival, much less a much younger rival, is renting space in his brain. Dew. But it didn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to understand what Alcaraz meant at Roland Garros earlier this year, when he was one win away from his first Grand Slam.
“It’s a game that a lot of people want to see,” he said. “He’s definitely the guy to beat here. I’m looking forward to it.”
Last year, as his lifelong rivals retired (Federer) and faded (Nadal), Djokovic was looking for his next source of motivation. There was a competition to win the most Grand Slam singles titles, but tennis players are heavily wired to compete against other humans.
Djokovic had been unable to play on America’s hard court swing due to his decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19. While he continues to remain at home in Europe, Alcaraz smashes the US Open and wins his first Grand Slam title with a charming smile and joyful, breathtaking élan not in Djokovic’s wheelhouse. The world fell in love with it.
Extinguishing someone else’s early fire, especially a feisty teenage sensation whose career rose to the top the fastest and fastest in the history of the sport…well, that was all the motivation he needed.
In his world, the torch is not passed. They get dragged away.
Or maybe not.
Alcaraz and his highlight-reel style proved no match for Djokovic, who was doomed by a loose forehand on Saturday night and couldn’t find his timing as Djokovic took the ball away too early. Djokovic somehow accepted the challenge and used it to create some of the best tennis in the world. his life.
After a three-set victory over Hubert Hurkas on Thursday evening in a much closer match than necessary, Djokovic realized his tour season could very well be over. He won two of his first three round-robin matches, but lost a set in each win and was pushed to the brink of elimination. For him to survive, Jannik Sinner, who defeated him on Tuesday, needed to knock out Holger Ruhn.
Angry at losing control of his destiny, he said he planned to have dinner with his family and go swimming in the hotel pool with his children. He had no intention of watching the match. Mentally, it seemed like he was already in the car on his way back to Monte Carlo, 160 miles south.
“Right now all I’m thinking about is hugging my kids,” he said.
Twenty hours later, Sinner rescued him and his match with Alcaraz was looming. Djokovic and his mortal brilliance returned to the Para Alpitour and with trainer Marko Panici, overcame grueling band training.
Dinner with his family and swimming seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind.
Heading into Saturday night, neither Alcaraz nor Djokovic had won back-to-back matches against their opponents. The first meeting between the two took place in Madrid in 2022, when he faced Alcaraz in a third-set tiebreak, leaving Djokovic on fire for more than a year. Players should need to lose against him a few times before they adapt to the specificity of the challenge he presents. Alcaraz realized that in the afternoon.
They passed each other for another 13 months. Losses and injuries during Alcaraz’s learning process. Djokovic missed the tournament because he requires vaccination.
Djokovic won by TKO in the semi-finals of the French Open. Alcaraz, who was ranked No. 1 in the world at the time, suffered a full-body convulsion due to stress during the first crucial moment of his match against the greatest player in history on a huge stage.
“It’s part of the learning curve,” Djokovic said. “That’s part of the experience. He’s only 20 years old.”
Alcaraz vowed that something like this would never happen again and spent the next month practicing relaxation and discussing his fears with coach Juan Carlos Ferrero. Ferrero tried to make him understand that these moments were an opportunity to show his greatness. Alcaraz, who was a few points behind in two sets, turned some of Djokovic’s mistakes into a lifeline and pulled off the same trick in the deciding set two hours later to snatch his eighth Wimbledon title from Djokovic.
Advantage Carlitos – Five weeks before Djokovic tied even on a sweaty night in Cincinnati, a four-hour match that former world No. 1 and tennis commentator Jim Courier called the best three-set match he had ever seen. Fight.
Saturday night in Turin was far from that.
Djokovic ended Alcaraz’s season with a clinical blow, but the Spaniard said this will be bigger than all their matchups during the offseason. With several points in the second set, Alcaraz fought for his life, running from corner to corner and trying to grab an advantage with a rocket-like forehand that Djokovic chased down enough to corner him. . He held out hope and posed with his chest out to the cheers of the crowd. This is (almost) always the case.
There’s always next year for Alcaraz. In a sport-defining rivalry like this one, that’s all anyone wants.
(Top photo: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images)