We have been witnessing a fascinating clay court campaign in a multitude of ways over the last several weeks. The first major development was when Stefanos Tsitsipas secured his initial Masters 1000 crown in Monte Carlo by toppling Andrey Rublev in the final after Rublev had stunned eleven time victor Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. Novak Djokovic suffered an even more astounding upset loss there to Great Britain’s Dan Evans in the round of 16.
Then Nadal was victorious in Barcelona, capturing that highly regarded ATP 500 title for the twelfth time, rescuing himself from match point down in the final against an inspired and somewhat unlucky Tsitsipas, prevailing in three hours and thirty eight minutes of suspenseful and riveting tennis. That same week in Belgrade, Djokovic was beaten in the semifinals of an ATP 250 event in his homeland, narrowly falling short against the surging Aslan Karatsev. The following day, the top ranked Italian Matteo Berrettini ousted Karatsev in a final set tie-break to claim that title.
And soon the stage was set for the second clay court Masters 1000 tournament of the season this past week in Madrid. Once more, there were a good many surprises over the course of the week. For starters, 2019 champion Djokovic chose not to play. Tsitsipas was knocked out in the round of 16 by a perspicacious Casper Ruud. Overflowing with confidence coming into the tournament, Tsitsipas never found a way to contain Ruud from the backcourt. He seemed constantly ill at ease coping with the Norwegian’s heavy and penetrating topspin forehand. Ruud kept Tsitsipas at bay with his high bounding shots off that side.
That match turned late in a first set settled in a tie-break. That crucial sequence was locked at 3-3 when Tsitsipas punched a backhand volley long to give Ruud the mini-break. Ruud took control off the forehand to stretch his lead to 6-3, and then came through to take the tie-break 7-4 when Tsitsipas missed a forehand inside-in wide.
The second set went to 3-3, but Tsitsipas was broken at 15 when he double faulted and pressed off the forehand, netting his down the line shot off that side. Ruud was too good with the lead, holding at 30 for 5-3. Two games later, Ruud served for the match, meeting that challenge with temerity, holding at the cost of only one point. Victory was salvaged deservedly by Ruud 7-6 (4), 6-4, who connected with nearly 80% of his first serves and largely set the tempo in this meeting. He was so good that Tsitsipas was frequently discombobulated, pressing and beating himself down the stretch.
The Norwegian eventually lost in the semifinals 6-4, 6-4 to a top of the line Berrettini after ousting Alexander Bublik 7-5 6-1 in the quarterfinals. He is beginning to make a habit out of showing up for the latter stages of Masters 1000 tournaments. He lost to Djokovic last year in the semifinals of Rome and a few weeks ago advanced to the same round in Monte Carlo. Ruud has the game to keep advancing deep into these draws at elite events.
Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev returned to the ATP Tour after being sidelined by Covid-19. He won a match but was then taken apart by the seasoned Christian Garin of Chile, a seasoned clay court player who was not intimidated in the least by taking on the world No. 2. He came through 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-1 for perhaps the biggest win of his career. Medvedev looked out of sorts and ill at ease through most of this encounter. The 25-year-old Russian was candid both before and after losing about his inner confusion concerning how to make his game work effectively on the dirt. The 2019 U.S. Open finalist and 2021 Australian Open runner-up has never won a match at Roland Garros in four appearances. He will have his work cut out for him to recover his finest tennis this week in Rome.
Clearly the most pivotal moment of the week in Madrid was the quarterfinal departure of Nadal at the hands of Zverev. The Spaniard looked composed and secure on his way to the appointment with Zverev. He was outmaneuvering his tall adversary in the early stages of this contest, building a 4-2 lead, putting himself two holds away from taking the first set. He reached 30-30 in the seventh game but Zverev stung him severely with a pair of excellent passing shots to get the break back.
Down break point in the following game, Zverev gamely held on to reach 4-4. Nadal had a game point for 5-4 but he could not cash in on it. At deuce, he double faulted, and then he netted a backhand passing shot. Zverev was rolling now. Serving for the first set, he started with a double fault but swept four points in a row from there with a flourish, lacing a backhand winner crosscourt, coming to the net to pressure Nadal on the next two points, and then acing the Spaniard down the T.
Zverev had captured four consecutive games and he never looked back as a desultory Nadal could not recover his form. Zverev played beautifully and dictated his share of the points. His serve was magnificent as Nadal only broke him once. For his part, Nadal was far too negative once he dropped the opening set. He fell behind 4-2 in the second set and held on there from 15-40, but Zverev maintained the upper hand to win 6-4, 6-4, stopping Nadal for the third time in a row.
Nadal, Tsitsipas and Medvedev were not the only major casualties in the tricky high altitude conditions on the Madrid clay. Dominic Thiem— absent in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and moving through something of a mid-career identity crisis—managed to fend off the sport’s most fearsome server in John Isner. Isner had cut down both Roberto Bautista Agut and Rublev in final set tie-breaks and he nearly halted Thiem. But when the industrious Austrian erased four break points against him at 2-2 in the second set, he altered the course of the match and Isner’s soaring confidence was soon diminished. Thiem rallied admirably for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph and a place in the semifinals.
That was not a bad start to his 2021 clay court campaign. But he looked rusty and uncomfortable against Zverev in the semifinals, and the 6-3, 6-4 scoreline is somewhat misleading. It was not as close as that. Zverev was far more self assured and consistent amidst the swirling winds and he had another very good serving day. He never allowed Thiem to settle into any kind of rhythm from the backcourt. The win for Zverev was all the more gratifying considering that it was their first clash since meeting in the U.S. Open final. Zverev led two sets to love in that match and later served for the match in the fifth set, but he faltered in the crunch and endured a nightmarish setback.
Not so in Madrid. On the clay he was often masterful, driving his two-handed backhand deep down the line for winners, opening up the court with his forehand, and approaching the net at all the right times to keep Thiem unsettled. He demonstrated in this match— as he had against Nadal—that he is as formidable on clay as he is on any other surface. Zverev was a worthy winner of the Madrid Masters 1000 tournament in 2018 after winning Rome the previous year. He also won the Canada hard court Masters 1000 tournament at Montreal in 2017. Those string of triumphs are abundant proof that he can win big tournaments as well as perform with comparable excellence on all kinds of courts.
For Zverev, the final this time around was a chance to reaffirm his greatness while Berrettini was searching for a breakthrough and a validation of all the progress he has made since he climbed into the world’s top ten in 2019 and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. He had never reached a Masters 1000 final before, but this was a chance to get on the board and prove that he belongs among the sport’s elite.
Berrettini acquitted himself well in a hard fought opening set. He gained the first break of the match for 4-3 but Zverev retaliated immediately to make it 4-4. They settled that set in one of the most bizarre tie-breaks of the entire tennis season. Benefitting from a stream of unforced errors from Zverev, Berrettini built a commanding 5-0 lead, with two service points to follow. But the Italian tightened up, losing the next four points, giving away three with unjustifiable mistakes.
Yet Berrettini unleashed a forehand inside in winner for a 6-4 lead, with two set points at his disposal. Once more with the lead, Berrettini faltered and Zverev moved in front on a run of three consecutive points, serving an ace for a 7-6 lead and a set point. But Berrettini produced a pair of fine first serves and took control off his explosive forehand to regain the lead at 8-7. Although Zverev made it back to 8-8, he foolishly gambled by going for a huge second serve ace down the T, double faulting that point away. Now Berrettini secured the set on his fourth set point with a service winner to the backhand.
The charismatic Italian had survived a considerable ordeal to salvage a set that almost got away, but Zverev refused to be preoccupied by an agonizingly narrow failure. Across the last two sets he was the decidedly better player. At 4-4 in the second set, Berrettini was burned by allowing Zverev to read his drop shot with ease. The German scampered forward and chipped a backhand winner out of reach for 15-40. Shaken, Berrettini double faulted and Zverev had the critical break for 5-4. Zverev served it out in the tenth game to make it one set all.
The Italian had one more opportunity early in the third set when he had a break point for 3-1 after Zverev went for another second serve ace down the T and double faulted. But Zverev saved the break point with a massive combination of a big serve that set up a forehand winner behind Berrettini. He held on for 2-2 and never looked back, breaking in the fifth and ninth games to record a 6-7 (8)), 6-4, 6-3 victory for his fourth Masters 1000 singles title. The only active players who have won more are Djokovic (36), Nadal (35), Roger Federer (28) and Andy Murray (14).
Most importantly at the moment, this was Zverev’s third Masters 1000 crown on clay. That puts him in very good stead for Roland Garros. Zverev now must be considered a top five candidate to take the world’s premier clay court title. Nadal remains the clear favorite, followed by Djokovic, Thiem and Tsitsipas. But Zverev is now right up there on the clay with the Serbian, Austrian and Greek stylists. Winning this title could not be more timely or uplifting for the tall German performer, with or without a strong showing in Rome this week.
Zverev coming through so convincingly in a tournament of such prestige only augers well for him in Paris. But what about Rome? Who is best positioned to be victorious this week on the Italian red clay?
Those are not easy questions to answer. One would think that Nadal will be very eager to make amends. He has won only one of his three clay court tournaments this year en route to Roland Garros, losing a pair of quarterfinals. Even his lone triumph in Barcelona was a narrow escape as the Spaniard saved a match point in the final set before holding back Tsitsipas in a rousing title round showdown.
This week in Rome, Nadal’s draw is not easy by any means. Seeded second behind Djokovic, he may have to face the hard working and wildly ambitious Jannik Sinner after a first round bye. He could meet Zverev for the second week in a row in the quarters. Zverev would have nothing to lose after eclipsing Rafa in Madrid, and the Spaniard could be both eager and uneasy if he does indeed face Zverev again.
If Nadal survives a potential confrontation against Zverev, he will be very likely to reach the final. No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev is on his half of the draw. I don’t believe Medvedev will make it to the penultimate round, but perhaps Diego Schwartzman will break out of a recent slump of sorts and try to reprise his winning form against Nadal last year at the same tournament.
There is no doubt Nadal could use a boost going into Roland Garros. He has yet to strike peak form these last bunch of weeks on his favorite surface, but claiming a tenth title in Rome would do much to improve his state of mind and carry him into Roland Garros feeling more like himself.
And yet, as much as Nadal wants to raise the level of his game this week in Italy, Novak Djokovic is even more in need of a morale boosting tournament. Djokovic, of course, commenced 2021 in style with his ninth Australian Open title run and an 18th Grand Slam title victory. But in his two clay court appearances this spring, he has not found a winning formula.
In Monte Carlo, playing Dan Evans for the first time, Djokovic was way off his game in a straight set defeat. He then suffered the disappointing loss to Karatsev in Serbia. Those subpar results are precisely why Djokovic must be determined to win his sixth Italian Open this week—or at least reach the final. That will be no facile feat. He could meet Evans again in his opening match if the British competitor beats Taylor Fritz in the first round.
The seedings project that Djokovic will meet the No. 5 seed Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals (if Tsitsipas can defeat Berrettini), and that one could be a blockbuster. Also on his half of the draw for a potential semifinal encounter are Thiem and Rublev, who should clash in the quarterfinals. My feeling is that Rome is even more important for Djokovic than it is for Nadal; a great week in Italy could propel the estimable Serbian into Paris and make him believe in his chances to win Roland Garros for the second time, but an early round loss would be a serious setback.
So there you have it. I have a hunch that we are in for some more surprises this week. Rublev might explode and take his first Masters 1000 title. Zverev will be ascendant after his heroics in Madrid. He will be loose, confident and happy to be sparkling in the springtime. Perhaps it is asking too much of him to win back to back Masters 1000s in successive weeks, but perhaps not. I would also not be stunned to see Tsitsipas step back up after his loss in Madrid and put it all together again.
To be sure, Nadal must be the favorite this week. He can be exceedingly dangerous when he is disconcerted with his game, and that could well drive him to dizzying heights in Rome. I feel the same way about Djokovic. He has too much pride and professionalism to accept anything less than a stellar showing this week as either the champion or the runner-up.
But what makes it all so intriguing at the moment is the unpredictability of the last three Masters 1000 tournaments. Hubert Hurkacz struck down Sinner in the Miami final; neither player had ever been in a Masters 1000 final before. Tsitsipas took his first of these elite prizes in Monte Carlo by toppling Rublev in the final. And then Zverev triumphed deservedly in Madrid, coming from behind to oust Berrettini, who was appearing in his first final at one of these elite events.
So take nothing for granted. Look for Nadal to be almost defiant. Expect Djokovic to be as motivated as he has been in a long time. Be anticipating as well that one of the emerging superstars of men’s tennis will be in the thick of the proceedings and unafraid to confront the icons of the game at the second most important clay court tournament in all of tennis.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
COMMENT: Is A Happy Carlos Alcaraz Too Good To Be True?
Carlos Alcaraz has put fun back into professional tennis.
Even the stoic Novak Djokovic has been taken by the fun times. Instead of frowning when Alcaraz comes up with one of his amazing winners, Novak releases a broad smile that turns his bearded face into a fan-winning appeal.
Who would have thought that Novak would become such a fan favorite in his old age as he attracts even Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal fans, and maybe some Alcaraz lovers. That last one may be difficult to believe, considering the almost cult-like following of Alcaraz.
OPPONENTS EVEN JOIN CARLOS’ FUN
It’s the boyish smile that Carlos uses to so easily lure tennis fans into his fan base. Opponents even join the fun when Alcaraz puts on another amazing stunt on the court, or sometimes while sliding to hit a winner off what looked like a sure winner by his opponents.
Even British star Daniel Evans couldn’t ignore the exuberance of Alcaraz in their third-round match at the U.S. Open. Alcaraz comes up with another one of his amazing shots to win a point, and Evans breaks into an ear-to-ear smile. Everyone is happy.
Yes, Carlos Alcaraz is almost too good to be true.
ALCARAZ FILLS THE GAP LEFT BY FEDERER AND NADAL
Yes, the amazing 20-year-old Spaniard gives tennis the bump it needs in the new generation of players after the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic heydays. Of course, Djokovic is still trying to add to his record-setting number of Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic is still very dangerous. It could be a spectacular final if Novak and Alcaraz could work their way into another Grand Slam final as they did at Wimbledon.
Of course, even after taking much of the fire out of Alexander Zverev in straight sets in the quarterfinals, Alcaraz isn’t home free yet. Not with former champion Daniil Medvedev standing in his path in Friday’s semifinals before a possible showdown with Djokovic.
WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN’S SIDE OF THINGS?
It’s anyone’s guess which semifinalist will walk off with the women’s crown on Saturday.
The only Grand Slam champion left, Australian Open champ and new world’s No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka, is in the bottom half of the draw, and must take on red-hot Madison Keys in Thursday’s semifinals.
Wimbledon titlist Marketa Vondrousova didn’t provide much of a test for 2017 U.S. Open finalist Keys in a 6-4, 6-1 loss in the quarterfinals. As good as Keys has been lately, Sabalenka will be difficult to handle.
That leaves young Coco Gauff or French runner-up Karolina Muchova as the other possible finalist. Sabalenka appears to be too strong and aggressive, not to mention talented, for the other three semifinalists.
Where’s French champion Iga Swiatek or high-ranked Jessica Pegula? Of course, both were wiped out in the round of 16, Pegula by Keys and Swiatek by unpredictable Jelena Ostapenko.
That leaves the gate wide open for Sabalenka’s fourth straight Grand Slam semifinal.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Lesson Failed: Never Take A Legend For Granted
Carlos Alcaraz should have learned at least one important lesson from his marathon loss to Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati final.
Never take anything for granted against a legend such as Djokovic.
Alcaraz paid a big price for ignoring that lesson in Sunday afternoon’s scorching heat on a blistering hard court.
NOVAK APPEARED TO BE HEADED FOR DEFEAT
Djokovic appeared to be a beaten man when Alcaraz served with a 4-3 lead in the second set. He was virtually wiped out, or so it appeared.
But the match really was just beginning. Alcaraz won the first point of that eighth game of the set, and everything appeared to be in order for the young Spaniard.
Boy, did things change quickly as Alcaraz carelessly committed four consecutive unforced errors. Suddenly, it was a new game with Novak looking alive and well. Four games later, they were in a tiebreaker and Alcaraz held his only match point of the day.
Djokovic was on fire then and on his way to a 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) victory.
LOSS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD
Of course, this one really didn’t mean that much to either Djokovic or Alcaraz. They are after bigger goals.
The big one comes up in New York in almost three weeks, if both players can make it to the final of the U.S. Open.
Alcaraz can only get better. After all, he’s only 20 years old. He made a remarkable improvement over his performance in losing to Tommy Paul a week earlier in Toronto.
You wouldn’t think Djokovic can get much better than the game he played in the Cincinnati final. Yes, it should be steaming hot in Arthur Ashe Stadium, too.
FIVE SETS A TELLING STORY
This time it will be five sets, and there is no telling who will survive the heat best, if Alcaraz gets another shot at Djokovic. For both players to make it through two weeks in New York to the Sunday final would be a major achievement for Djokovic and defending champion Alcaraz.
Either way, it probably is just a matter of time before Djokovic gives up the chase for more Grand Slam titles. It is worth it in the end of other majors for Djokovic only if he can prevail through the final shot.
But anything short of other major titles wouldn’t be worth what Djokovic went through Sunday in Cincinnati for 229 minutes. Of course, Alcaraz went through similar circumstances at the French Open.
But he’s 16 years younger than Djokovic.
All of the great ones eventually have to surrender to time.
COCO IS A STAR IN THE MAKING
Coco Gauff likely will become one of the great ones before she finishes. A Grand Slam title in New York would set her on her way to greatness.
The 19-year-old, much like Alcaraz, is loaded with weapons. First, she is a great athlete.
That was obvious to me as early as May 2019 when I spotted Gauff resting on a bench at courtside after a long workout at LTP Tennis in Charleston. She already had qualified for the $100K ITF tournament there.
I interviewed Coco for just a few minutes before she was called back to the court. A month later she was in the round of 16 at the French Open.
JUST A MATTER OF TIME FOR GAUFF
Just 15 years old, it was just a matter of time before Gauff would become a superstar.
She isn’t quite there yet, but after winning titles in Washington as well as her first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, Gauff is getting close. She still has two more chances to win a Grand Slam title as a teenager, and the next step could be New York. She already has the experience of a runner-up finish at last year’s French Open.
Gauff really didn’t have much trouble upending Karolina Muchova, 6-3, 6-4, at Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open on Sunday.
But again, the draw for the U.S. Open will be filled with players capable of winning a Grand Slam title, even including the likes of Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, ranked just ninth in the world. As a left-hander, she already has the edge over most of the players in the field.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
WIMBLEDON: An immense Alcaraz, but the changing of the guard is yet to come…
Alcaraz’s merits compared with Djokovic’s demerits. Just a bad day among many so-so days for the Serbian, nonetheless No. 2 of the ATP ranking? Or is it the start of an inexorable decline? Farewell to the Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors?
NOTE: This article was written in Italian and has been Translated by Carla Montaruli
Carlitos Alcaraz triumphed, cheers for Carlitos Alcaraz. The feat he accomplished at only 20 years of age and in his fourth tournament on grass is remarkable, remarkable indeed. He is the third youngest champion ever after 17-year-old Becker and 20-year-old Borg, as well as the third Spaniard after Santana and Nadal to win the trophy. Being able to beat a player in the fifth set after 4 hours and 43 minutes who is the king of marathons, a seven-time champion and had won 45 straight matches over the last 10 years on Centre Court, can only be considered a great exploit.
Credit where credit is due. Alcaraz played beautiful tennis, complete in all aspects, bold forehands and backhands, powerful and hit on the rise, drop-shots, acrobatic and diving volleys, hanging smashes, aces and winning serves. All this with great mental solidity displayed throughout the entire match: after losing the first set badly, enduring the tension of a second set tiebreak which had not started well for him, then dominating the third set and finally closing the encounter as a consummate veteran in the fifth with a last service game played brilliantly after tenaciously defending very well the break he had secured in the third game of the final set.
A 20-year-old young man could not be asked for more. A well-deserved applause and congratulations also for defending that first place in the world rankings that he will hold for the twenty-ninth week, hoping to keep it as long as possible.
Staying at the top for 389 weeks like the extraordinary champion he beat on Sunday would mean dominating the world stage for over seven years. Over seven years! And…as I write this I wonder if we have paid enough attention to such a feat in all that time!
Yes, because you write 310 weeks, Federer’s weeks as world No.1, then you write 389, that is Djokovic’s weeks spent in the same spot: there and then they seem like just numbers…but only when you divide them by 52, the weeks in a year, do you realize the immensity of these extended dominances within a sport whose growing competitiveness and many booming young guns are emphasized almost every day.
Crazy in the case of both Federer and Djokovic with the ATP scepter in their hands, because each of them – as the fourth part of the Fab Four – had to confront at least with the other three. All four have been world number one. Still, for 699 weeks, almost 13 years and a half, Roger and Nole were number one, Nadal was king for 209 weeks and Murray for 41. Add them up and that’s another five years—eighteen years of reign for four kings. Written so many times off the top of my head…but upon reflection this is impressive stuff. It never remotely happened before.
So here it is… the idea that Carlitos Alcaraz could one day – but we are talking about seven years! – reach Djokovic’s 389-week reign today may seem unreal, absolutely far-fetched.
But…are there perhaps three more champions on the horizon who can recreate a quartet of phenomena like the Fab Four? I don’t see them at all. Will Alcaraz be alone in the driver’s seat for the next few years?
In seven years, 10 or 18 – 18 years was the reign of the Fab Four — phenoms could sprout up almost like mushrooms! Speculating on what will happen in such a long and far away period is a mindless divertissement and I don’t know why it dawned on me…. Except perhaps Holger Rune today – though greatly downgraded by the last duel here at Wimbledon – there doesn’t seem to be a rival of Alcaraz’s caliber right now. Our compatriots may see our Sinner two steps below Alcaraz and one step below Rune, but neither do they see other “prospects” ahead of him. Djokovic called Sinner one of the leaders of the new generation. His fifth place in the Race, along with eighth in ATP ranking certify such status.
But then for a year or two, or maybe even three, if Rune and Sinner don’t make giant strides, or if a new rising star doesn’t emerge, Carlitos Alcaraz could easily add a hundred or more weeks to the 29 he has already earned as No. 1.
Or am I venturing into a wild prediction?
Just not to present you with a single scenario I want to say, however, that the most obvious commonplace one could come up with today, after this final that Djokovic shall not cease to regret for at least four reasons – three missed backhands in the tiebreak and a clumsy drive volley which squandered a hard-earned break point for a 2-0 lead in the decider – is that we have witnessed the changing of the guard.
It will make so many headlines, sure. I may have uttered it too, in one of the many videos I did for Ubi Instagram, for Ubitennis, and the IntesaSanPaolo website. But in my opinion, it’s not true yet.
Djokovic is not ready to retire. He is not going to quit, even if the dream of achieving a Grand Slam has vanished, maybe forever. Farewell to Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors? I think so. He is still world No. 2, isn’t he?
I had written throughout the tournament – you may check – that I didn’t think I had seen the best Djokovic. He had not been at his best against Hurkacz or even Rublev. And, as much as many readers disagreed, neither had he dominated Sinner as he had last year in the last three sets when he had been truly unplayable. Demerit to him and credit to Sinner, as often happens simultaneously.
I wrote that Hurkacz had thrown the first set out of the window and when leading 5-4 in the tiebreak of the second with two serves at disposal to put it away he had not been faultless but had shown a lack of personality. I also wrote that Rublev had been unlucky in the fourth set on the occasion of some break points he had failed to convert.
We did not see the best Djokovic, in my opinion, even in the final against Alcaraz. Otherwise, he would have been two sets up.
Oh yes, come on: the three backhand errors he made in the first tiebreak he lost after 15 won were not errors from Djokovic, the champion who has always played the crucial pointsbetter than anyone else, certainly better than Federer and Murray, perhaps equal to Nadal.. In particular, match points aside – what about that, dear Roger? – those tiebreaks that are said to be worth double.
Those three backhands, a drop shot at 3-2 when he was a minibreak ahead, the one at 6-5 and setpoint after he had deftly returned Carlitos’ serve, the one at 6-6 were errors worthy of a Hurkacz, a Norrie or a Shapovalov, not a Djokovic!
I recall – just quoting from memory because I haven’t time to engage in dutiful and thorough research – that Nole’s record in best-of-five matches after winning the first set is monstrous. Imagine after winning the first two sets.
Here, a Nole in ordinary form, even against that very inspired Alcaraz, would have started the third set with a two-set lead.
I know that with ifs and buts, you don’t go anywhere. But I’m pretty sure – and I think Nole is too – that if the two sets lead never came into being, it was more because of Nole’s demerit than Carlitos’ merit.
But is this a random demerit, due to a bad day and a series of bad days as it appeared to me throughout the tournament, or is it a sign of the slow inexorable decline of the Serbian who is beginning to come to terms with his age? That drive volley with which he dissipated the all-important break point and the chance to rise 2-0 in the fifth set was another topical moment. Yet, it was not Novak to succeed in a decisive breakthrough, but Carlos three minutes later.
The fury with which, at the changeover, Nole smashed his racket on the net post is revealing. Nole had missed the train to victory and, experienced as he is, he understood it.
I would say that this casual contingent demerit or signal of inexorable decline is the discriminating point of our debate.
Bravo, bravo to Alcaraz for taking advantage of it with precocious maturity, but did Djokovic stumble over a mediocre day by chance, because it can happen to everyone, even to younger tennis players, or because even he – an extraordinary phenomenon – is on that rickety path where age starts taking its toll?
If the most plausible answer we believe in is the first one – and that is the one I believe in – we cannot yet speak of a changing of the guard.
Djokovic can safely return to the throne of tennis, perhaps win the US Open and/or the next ATP Finals in Turin as well as an 11th Australian Open. Push the undoubtedly great Alcaraz back to second place.
If, on the other hand, the right answer is the second, this Wimbledon definitely enshrines the changing of the guard. But, even in this scenario, only the changing of the guard at the top and the handover between Djokovic and Alcaraz. Not a generational changing of the guard though, at least for now and the very near future, because even a subdued and slightly tarnished Djokovic is stronger than Rune, Sinner, and Tsitsipas on almost any surface. At worst he would be the second-best tennis player in the world. The others, Sinner included, would do anything to stand where he stands.
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