In Carlos Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic Has a A lot-Wanted Present: A Rival

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Novak Djokovic had dominated all the most important moments of the primary half of this tennis season. After profitable his tenth Australian Open, he emerged with the Roland Garros crown, his twenty third Grand Slam event title, tied for the profession document.

A win at Wimbledon, on tennis’s most hallowed floor, would have put him three-quarters of the best way to turning into the primary man to realize a calendar Grand Slam in 54 years. The Serb appeared destined to face alone as an unchecked nice of the game, surpassing the win totals of each Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and not using a credible challenger to the throne.

Then got here Hurricane Carlito, a.ok.a. Carlos Alcaraz, shocking the tennis world with a championship match victory over Djokovic on the slick Wimbledon grass, a floor assumed to have been the Spaniard’s kryptonite.

How rapidly fates can change. Wimbledon was simply the third head-to-head match between the 2. However when the ultimate was over, as Alcaraz lofted the best trophy in tennis skyward, a budding tug of battle had morphed right into a full-blown rivalry for males’s tennis supremacy.

What a present Alcaraz is for tennis.

What a present this still-new drive is for Djokovic.

Now their pairing, essentially the most electrical in tennis, is broadly anticipated to be the fun of this yr’s U.S. Open. Alcaraz, the world’s top-ranked male participant, will defend his U.S. Open championship, which he gained in 2022’s Djokovic-less subject.

Watching Alcaraz, a supreme expertise at simply 20, play in particular person is like seeing a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Maserati burst down the freeway, leaving each different make and mannequin in its wake. You understand you’ve by no means seen one thing on the street so smooth, nimble, highly effective or suited to its process.

It’s usually a turning level in skilled tennis when a gifted younger expertise ascends to stardom in such fast trend. Within the males’s sport, to quote simply two cases, consider 18-year-old Bjorn Borg serving to open the curtain for the Nineteen Seventies tennis growth by profitable the French Open in 1974. Flash ahead to 19-year-old Pete Sampras heralding a brand new period by profitable the U.S. Open in 1990.

Alcaraz’s emergence presents new prospects.

However even with one million miles on his legs and a proper arm liable to harm, Djokovic, 36, is embracing the problem of fending him off. He has described Alcaraz as one thing solely novel: a mix of Nadal’s bullish dedication, Federer’s grace and the Serb’s canny guile. “I haven’t performed a participant like him,” Djokovic mentioned of Alcaraz, in glowing and astonished phrases.

On the Western & Southern Open finals two weeks in the past within the Cincinnati space, Djokovic usually appeared able to buckle within the center-court sauna that was the championship match.

Between factors of a traditional contested for practically 4 sweltering hours, Djokovic gasped for breath. Throughout changeovers, he stared woefully downward and wrapped luggage of ice round his neck.

Then he rose. And took over.

Djokovic beat again a match level and saved profitable vital factors — sprinting to all corners, redirecting Alcaraz howitzers with topspin, underspin and sidespin, besting the highly effective upstart with pace, contact and cleverness.

When it was over, the scoreboard spoke to the small margin between these two. Djokovic gained, 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4). That’s the distinction of 1 shot, perhaps two. An inch extra distance on a serve, an inch much less heft on a lob.

Given the sudden depth of their matches, it’s outstanding to recollect they performed for the primary time, on the Madrid clay, in 2022 — a match gained by Alcaraz. After they traded the No. 1 rating in males’s tennis this season, their head-to-head document is even at 2-2.

Their pairing has added an sudden third act to Djokovic’s 20-year profession.

Act I: The long-ago time when he appeared perpetually within the shadow of Nadal and Federer.

Act II: In 2011, he launched into essentially the most beautiful run within the historical past of males’s tennis, an epoch wherein he gained 22 of his males’s document 23 Grand Slam occasions and got here to dominate his two rivals. Was it due to his gluten-free, plant-based weight loss program? Or all of the meditation and yoga and psychological coaching? Did it matter?

Act III: With Federer retired to run his enterprise empire and Nadal’s accidents placing his return to the tour unsure, Djokovic’s profession was lastly unshackled from these two cussed threats. Then a brand new opponent emerged.

For a participant as prideful and conscious of his place within the tennis firmament as Djokovic, the considered Alcaraz’s subsequent 15 years maybe affords new motivation. Ought to he stay wholesome, it’s potential to think about the Spaniard difficult Djokovic’s voluminous data, together with the mind-boggling haul of Grand Slam occasions.

However let’s not get too far forward of ourselves. What could possibly be coming subsequent is thrilling sufficient.

“I’m hoping we are able to play in some weeks’ time in New York,” Djokovic advised Alcaraz on the trophy ceremony in Ohio. Figuring out the highest two seeds may meet solely within the closing, the gang roared in approval. “That may be good.”

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