In Carlos Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic Has a Much-Needed Gift: A Rival

Novak Djokovic had dominated all of the most significant moments of the first half of this tennis season. After winning his 10th Australian Open, he emerged with the Roland Garros crown, his 23rd Grand Slam tournament title, tied for the career record.

A win at Wimbledon, on tennis’s most hallowed ground, would have put him three-quarters of the way to becoming the first man to achieve a calendar Grand Slam in 54 years. The Serb seemed destined to stand alone as an unchecked great of the sport, surpassing the win totals of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal without a credible challenger to the throne.

Then came Hurricane Carlito, a.k.a. Carlos Alcaraz, surprising the tennis world with a championship match victory over Djokovic on the slick Wimbledon grass, a surface assumed to have been the Spaniard’s kryptonite.

How quickly fates can change. Wimbledon was just the third head-to-head match between the two. But when the final was over, as Alcaraz lofted the greatest trophy in tennis skyward, a budding tug of war had morphed into a full-blown rivalry for men’s tennis supremacy.

What a gift Alcaraz is for tennis.

What a gift this still-new force is for Djokovic.

Now their pairing, the most electric in tennis, is widely expected to be the thrill of this year’s U.S. Open. Alcaraz, the world’s top-ranked male player, will defend his U.S. Open championship, which he won in 2022’s Djokovic-less field.

Watching Alcaraz, a supreme talent at just 20, play in person is like seeing a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Maserati burst down the freeway, leaving every other make and model in its wake. You realize you’ve never seen something on the road so sleek, nimble, powerful or suited to its task.

It is often a turning point in professional tennis when a gifted young talent ascends to stardom in such quick fashion. In the men’s game, to cite just two instances, think of 18-year-old Bjorn Borg helping open the curtain for the 1970s tennis boom by winning the French Open in 1974. Flash forward to 19-year-old Pete Sampras heralding a new era by winning the U.S. Open in 1990.

Alcaraz’s emergence presents new possibilities.

But even with a million miles on his legs and a right arm prone to injury, Djokovic, 36, is embracing the challenge of fending him off. He has described Alcaraz as something entirely novel: a mixture of Nadal’s bullish determination, Federer’s grace and the Serb’s canny guile. “I haven’t played a player like him,” Djokovic said of Alcaraz, in glowing and astonished terms.

At the Western & Southern Open finals two weeks ago in the Cincinnati area, Djokovic often appeared ready to buckle in the center-court sauna that was the championship match.

Between points of a classic contested for nearly four sweltering hours, Djokovic gasped for breath. During changeovers, he stared woefully downward and wrapped bags of ice around his neck.

Then he rose. And took over.

Djokovic beat back a match point and kept winning critical points — sprinting to all corners, redirecting Alcaraz howitzers with topspin, underspin and sidespin, besting the powerful upstart with speed, touch and cleverness.

When it was over, the scoreboard spoke to the small margin between these two. Djokovic won, 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4). That’s the difference of one shot, maybe two. An inch more distance on a serve, an inch less heft on a lob.

Given the sudden intensity of their matches, it’s remarkable to remember they played for the first time, on the Madrid clay, in 2022 — a match won by Alcaraz. After they traded the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis this season, their head-to-head record is even at 2-2.

Their pairing has added an unexpected third act to Djokovic’s 20-year career.

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

Act II: In 2011, he embarked on the most stunning run in the history of men’s tennis, an epoch in which he won 22 of his men’s record 23 Grand Slam events and came to dominate his two rivals. Was it because of his gluten-free, plant-based diet? Or all the meditation and yoga and mental training? Did it matter?

Act III: With Federer retired to run his business empire and Nadal’s injuries putting his return to the tour in doubt, Djokovic’s career was finally unshackled from those two stubborn threats. Then a new opponent emerged.

For a player as prideful and aware of his place in the tennis firmament as Djokovic, the thought of Alcaraz’s next 15 years perhaps offers new motivation. Should he remain healthy, it is possible to imagine the Spaniard challenging Djokovic’s voluminous records, including the mind-boggling haul of Grand Slam events.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. What could be coming next is exciting enough.

“I’m hoping we can play in some weeks’ time in New York,” Djokovic told Alcaraz at the trophy ceremony in Ohio. Knowing the top two seeds could meet only in the final, the crowd roared in approval. “That would be nice.”

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