As I write this piece, the French Open draw has not yet been made. That makes it difficult to make projections that are too bold or specific, but I am ready to present my overview of Roland Garros and to look at what could unfold over the next few weeks at the most important clay court tournament on the planet.
No matter how the draw turns out (Will Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic end up in the same half and meet in the semifinals? Who will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals? What else is in store?) the view here is that no one is going to deny Nadal another triumphant run at his favorite tournament in the world. Nadal is almost surely going to collect a fourteenth crown in Paris, and thus move past Roger Federer into first place among the men as the winner of the most Grand Slam singles titles ever. Nadal is poised to collect his 21st major title after a hard and productive clay court campaign.
To be sure, he was somewhat vulnerable on the red clay this time around. He was ousted in a three set quarterfinal at Monte Carlo by the big hitting Andrey Rublev, and thus prevented from winning that tournament for the twelfth time. The dynamic Spaniard took that loss with his usual equanimity, realizing there was a long road ahead on the dirt, understanding that his form would inevitably improve.
He moved on to Barcelona, and at that ATP 500 event he made amends for his Monte Carlo setback. Nadal was pushed to the hilt by an inspired Tsitsipas in the final. The gifted Greek stylist played with all of his heart and a great deal of verve, bringing Nadal to the brink of defeat. Tsitsipas had a match point and was somewhat unlucky not to convert it. His return of serve was sent deep down the middle. After Nadal commendably flicked it back crosscourt, Tsitsipas unleashed a heavy forehand deep into Nadal’s backhand corner.
Rafa barely got that ball back on the stretch as his two-hander clipped the net cord and fortunately stayed in play. Nadal went on to win that point and claimed the match 6-4, 6-7 (6), 7-5. It was a narrow escape but Nadal deservedly came away with a twelfth crown in Barcelona in a match he needed badly from a psychological perspective.
And yet, he was still not fully in the groove on his best surface. Nadal was ushered out of Madrid in the quarterfinals by a composed and confident Sascha Zverev, who extended his winning streak over the Spaniard to three head to head matches in a row. Zverev won that contest in straight sets after trailing 4-2 in the opening set. He served beautifully, waited for the right openings to approach the net off his forehand, and defended ably in many instances. But Nadal was understandably very unhappy with his performance, and his negativity was readily apparent.
Having lost in two of his three clay court appearances, Nadal once more needed a boost when he went to Rome. And that is precisely what he got in the end. Nevertheless, he was in a very precarious position when he took on Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16. The Canadian left-hander played perhaps the finest clay court tennis of his career to nearly produce a major upset on the Italian clay.
Shapovalov won the first set and led 3-0 with a break point for 4-0 in the second set. Nadal struck back audaciously to win six of the last seven games to salvage the second set. Nevertheless, the Spaniard soon trailed 3-1 in the final set before getting back on even terms. Be that as it may, Nadal was down match point twice when he served at 5-6 in the final set and was fortunate that the Canadian was a bit impetuous on both opportunities. Nadal came through in a final set tie-break to win a crucial encounter.
Buoyed by that escape, Nadal avenged his Madrid loss to Zverev by upending the German in the quarterfinals. He next took apart the towering American Reilly Opelka in the semifinals, and then he won what was arguably the best played clay court match of the 2021 season by overcoming Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 for a tenth Italian Open crown.
Djokovic was first rate across the three sets of high quality tennis. He had the early break for 2-0 in the opening set but Nadal broke right back. At 5-5 the Serbian had a game point but double faulted and was soon broken. But he swept through the second set sublimely and then had two break points with Nadal serving at 2-2 in the final set. Djokovic missed a high forehand into the net tape on one of those break points, and once Nadal held on there he took control the rest of the way, closing the gap in his personal career head to head series with Djokovic to 29-28 for the Serbian.
Nadal did not want to be beaten in three out of four tournaments en route to Roland Garros, and he avoided that fate by playing the big points better than Djokovic in both the first and third sets. He came away with a second clay court title of the season and a considerable lift heading into the French Open. In my view, he raised his game decidedly against Djokovic when he had to, and the Spaniard was pounding the forehand as prodigiously as he has in a very long while. In turn, his serve location and velocity were significantly improved.
Nadal’s tournament preparation for Roland Garros was over and he has put himself in good stead. He will turn 35 early in the tournament but the eminent left-hander is playing like a much younger man. No matter how modest he is and how little he says about his confidence or convictions, the view here is entirely clear—Rafael Nadal fully believes he is going to win a 14th French Open.
I would give only two other men a serious chance to win at Roland Garros. To be sure, Djokovic and Tsitsipas must have everything fall into place perfectly to win in Paris, but both men should be very well prepared to give it their all at the French Open.
Djokovic must be considered the distant second favorite behind Nadal for a number of reasons. He has won the tournament before which is no mean feat, coming through in 2016 for his fourth Grand Slam title in a row, becoming the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep four straight major titles. Djokovic is one of only two players ever to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, eclipsing the Spaniard in the 2015 quarterfinals.
Balanced against that fact is this: Djokovic has been beaten three times in the finals of the French Open by Nadal, bowing against his chief rival in 2012, 2014, and 2020. In last year’s final, Djokovic was taken apart 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 by Nadal in their most one-sided contest ever on such a big occasion. Altogether, his record against Nadal at Roland Garros is 1-7.
The fact remains that Nadal respects Djokovic as a player more than anyone else. The final last year was an anomaly. Nadal was letter perfect on that afternoon while Djokovic was far away from the top of his game. If they meet again this year, the match will not resemble that one. In Rome, Djokovic was outplayed in the end but the margins were exceedingly slim and both players were well aware of that.
The Serbian is competing this week in Belgrade and looking for his first title since taking the Australian Open at the start of the season for the ninth time. Djokovic should win the tournament and thus give himself a boost as he approaches Roland Garros. He played an abysmal match in losing to Dan Evans in the round of 16 at Monte Carlo, and then was beaten in a well played semifinal by Aslan Karatsev in the first of two Serbian tournaments he would play on his way to Roland Garros. But Djokovic was too tight to do himself full justice in that contest. His break point conversion rate was not up to his standard. Karatsev saved 23 of 28 break points against him in that duel. And then Djokovic lost that hard fought clash with Nadal in Rome.
Djokovic should be ready in Paris. While Nadal clearly has history uppermost on his mind as he goes full force after the title in Paris, Djokovic will be similarly motivated. If Nadal wins the tournament, Djokovic would trail the Spaniard by three majors, but if the Serbian prevails he could close the gap to one title. That is a huge difference.
While Djokovic will have the match play he needs to perform at optimum level in Paris, so, too, will the surging Tsitsipas. The Greek player won his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, lost narrowly to Nadal in that Barcelona final, fell in the round of 16 in Madrid, but then nearly toppled Djokovic in a stirring quarter final battle in Rome. Tsitsipas served for the match before losing that riveting encounter 7-5 in the third set.
That was his second agonizing clay court loss of the season. Both Nadal in Barcelona and Djokovic in Rome demonstrated that they are the best big pressure players in the game. But Tsitsipas recovered well from the Djokovic loss. This past week he won his second clay court crown of the season in Lyon. That triumph could not have been more timely.
There are others, of course, who are capable of capturing the title at Roland Garros under the right set of circumstances. But two of the top four seeds are at very low emotional ebbs at the moment. Dominic Thiem has been magnificent in many ways over the last five French Open editions. In 2016, he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals. A year later, Nadal beat him in the penultimate round. And then in 2018 and 2019 he was the runner-up to Nadal. Last year, Thiem fell in the quarterfinals against Diego Schwartzman but he was weary then after winning the U.S. Open a few weeks earlier.
Now the Austrian is simply not himself physically or emotionally. He skipped Monte Carlo, lost to Zverev in the semifinals of Madrid, fell in a closely contested round of 16 skirmish against Lorenzo Sonego in Rome and then bowed out tamely this past week 6-3, 6-2 against Cameron Norrie, who made it to the final and lost to Tsitsipas.
Thiem is a great clay court player, but his spirits now are so diminished that I don’t see him going deep into the draw in Paris. His vulnerability is unmistakable. And what of world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev? He has freely admitted that clay is a surface he simply does not understand. He has struggled inordinately all spring. I expect Medvedev to lose early at Roland Garros. He has been beaten in the first round at the French Open no fewer than four years in a row. His morale is low. It is hard to imagine him making much of an impression. For Nadal to be seeded behind Medvedev in Paris is a glaring injustice.
I believe Sascha Zverev is going to be a factor in Paris. The 2020 U.S. Open finalist was victorious in Madrid, taking his third career Masters 1000 clay court title. He has the game to succeed on any surface but does he have the emotional stability to get through a fortnight in Paris this time around? I doubt it, although he is one player Nadal would rather not have to face.
Four other players could make their presence known depending on their draws. Rublev is a workhorse who approaches every tournament as if it will be the last one he will ever play. But after his final round appearance in Monte Carlo, his results on clay were disappointing. Matteo Berrettini is very comfortable on the clay and reached the final in Madrid, but can he move beyond the quarterfinals or perhaps the semifinals? I doubt it.
Meanwhile another Italian must be watched closely. Jannik Sinner has not done himself justice during the clay court season but the Miami Masters 1000 hard court finalist is among the most determined competitors out there. He pushed Nadal hard in a respectable loss at Rome. He can make inroads after reaching the quarters last year in Paris and nearly winning the first set from Nadal. But the feeling grows that Sinner’s best case scenario is a semifinal showing.
It all comes back to Nadal. This is a man on a mission. He will be looking to peak in Paris as he does almost every years. Here is a redoubtable champion who won Roland Garros the first four times he played it (2005-2008) before a shocking round of 16 loss to Robin Soderling in 2009. Then he won five in a row (2010-2014) before losing to Djokovic in 2015 and withdrawing prior to a third round match in 2016 with an injury. Since then he has won four more titles in a row.
Beating Rafael Nadal in a best of five set match on clay is the toughest task in tennis. I am almost certain he is going to be the last man standing again in Paris.
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.
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.
Steve Flink On Wimbledon 2023
Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic’s epic five set battle headlined Wimbledon 2023.
Perhaps there has never been a generational clash quite like this one in the Wimbledon final. Here was Carlos Alcaraz at the age of 20— but with the mindset and game of a 30-year-old—facing the 36-year-old Djokovic, who was performing all through the tournament and across the Grand Slam season like a man a decade younger. Alcaraz was in search of a second Grand Slam title, and deeply determined to add the world’s most prestigious crown to the U.S. Open championship he secured last September.
Contrast his plight with that of Djokovic. The Serbian was trying for the second time in three years to sweep the first three majors of the season and move on to New York in quest of a calendar year Grand Slam—the only authentic kind there is. Already Djokovic had moved past Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros to the top of the men’s list with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, but now he stood one match away from a tie with Margaret Court at 24 for the most majors sealed by a man or woman.
Moreover, Djokovic was seeking to equal Roger Federer’s men’s record of eight singles titles at the shrine of Wimbledon, and to win the world’s premier title for the fifth straight time and stand alongside Federer (2003-2007) and Bjorn Borg (1976-80) by realizing that feat. Djokovic had not lost on the Centre Court for ten years, since confronting Andy Murray in the 2013 final. He carried a 45 match Centre Court winning streak into the arena when he took on Alcaraz, and a 34 match winning streak overall at the sport’s showcase event.
As for the Spaniard, he had his own historical reasons to succeed. Only two Spanish men had ever won Wimbledon, with Manolo Santana taking the title in 1966 in the amateur era and Nadal winning twice in 2008 and 2010. In turn, Alcaraz was attempting to become the third youngest man in the Open Era to be a Wimbledon singles champion. Boris Becker claimed the preeminent tournament in tennis 38 years ago at 17 and Bjorn Borg won his first title in 1976.
No doubt history was swirling .in the air as Djokovic and Alcaraz stopped onto Centre Court for their eagerly awaited final round appointment. Alcaraz was seeded first based on his No. 1 status in the ATP Rankings but Djokovic was the clear favorite due to his Wimbledon dominance and his vast experience as a big match player of long standing. By reaching his 35th major final, Djokovic had surpassed Chris Evert for the record in that category and he was in dogged pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title. Alcaraz was appearing in only his second major final.
That gap in experience seemed consequential at the outset of this duel on a windy Sunday afternoon in Great Britain. It was Djokovic who came out of the blocks blazing while the Spaniard was misfiring in the early stages, overcooking too many shots and playing into the Serbian’s hands. Be that as it may, Djokovic could have been no better than he was in the opening set.
He did struggle in the first game of the match but he saved a break point with a 127 MPH service winner to the backhand. After two deuces, he held on with another unanswerable first serve released at 125 MPH to the Spaniard’s backhand. Now that he had that hold behind him, Djokovic went to work with striking clarity and precision. Alcaraz was coaxed into three forehand mistakes in the following game while Djokovic released one winning forehand of his own. The Serbian broke for 2-0 at 30 and then held at 30 with a 121 MPH ace down the T.
Alcaraz could feel Djokovic bearing down on him. He rallied from 15-40 to deuce in the fourth game but Djokovic converted on his third break point for 4-0 with a deep backhand crosscourt return drawing an error. Djokovic promptly held for 5-0 at 15, sending a 121 MPH serve down the T to set up a swing volley winner off the forehand. To 5-0 he went. Djokovic wrapped up the set 6-1 with a love hold, putting away an overhead to seal it in only 35 minutes.
But Alcaraz responded admirably to the swiftness of his first set disappointment. As Djokovic struggled with his toss in the burdensome wind, the Spaniard broke for 2-0 after two deuces as the Serbian pulled a forehand crosscourt wide at break point down. Djokovic retaliated immediately to break back in the third game by probing once more to draw Alcaraz into forehand errors. He then saved a break point on his way to 2-2. The two players stayed on serve for the rest of the set.
That meant this critical set would be settled in a tie-break, which seemed like a big advantage for Djokovic. He had won no fewer than 15 tie-breaks in a row at the majors, including his last three at the Australian Open, six more at Roland Garros and another six during this edition of Wimbledon. Justifiably confident, he surged to 3-0 in this sequence as Alcaraz drove a backhand long down the line before Djokovic delivered a pair of unstoppable first serves.
Alcaraz quickly took his two service points and then benefitted from a netted backhand drop shot from Djokovic to reach 3-3. Nevertheless, Djokovic advanced to set point with Alcaraz serving at 5-6. The Serbian made a fine return off a first serve and Alcaraz replied with a deep crosscourt backhand. Djokovic has long possessed the best and most reliable backhand in the game. His two-hander is rock solid and he measures it impeccably under pressure. But, shockingly, he sent his two-hander into the net tape.
The two players changed ends of the court and now Djokovic erred once more off the backhand, netting another shot inexplicably. Those two glaring mistakes took Djokovic from the brink of a two set lead to set point down. He tried to serve-and-volley behind a 118 MPH first serve out wide in the ad court, but Alcaraz anticipated that play uncannily and laced a magnificent two-handed return up the line for a winner. The tie-break belonged to Alcaraz eight points to six. The match was deadlocked at one set all. In the space of a few crucial minutes the match had significantly changed colors.
Djokovic was clearly perturbed by what had happened. With Alcaraz keeping more and more returns in play and forcing Djokovic to generate his own pace, the Spaniard surged to 3-1 in the third set. They then engaged in a spirited 27 minute game stretching across 13 deuces. Alcaraz’s persistence was rewarded as he gained the break for 4-1. A dispirited Djokovic lost eight of the next ten points as Alcaraz moved into a two sets to one lead by virtue of that 6-1 third set success.
The seven-time champion took a long bathroom break after the third set, but soon was in another precarious corner when he served at 0-1, 15-40 in the fourth. But he pieced together four points in a row to reach 1-1. At 2-2, Djokovic broke by chipping a soft backhand pass at the feet of Alcaraz and eliciting a half volley error. Revitalized, Djokovic held at 30 for 4-2 and moved to 5-3 with a love game on his delivery.
Now Alcaraz seemed fatigued. In the ninth game of the fourth set he double faulted twice and was broken at 15. The set was in the Djokovic victory column 6-3, and he had the advantage of serving first in the final set. Djokovic fended off a break point on his way to 1-0 in the fifth, and he advanced to break point in the second game. He opened up the court with a crosscourt backhand, approached behind an impeccable forehand down the line, and seemed certain to win the point. But when Alcaraz lobbed off the backhand, Djokovic was concerned about the wind and chose to play a forehand swing volley rather than an overhead. Trying to go behind the Spaniard and much to his dismay, Djokovic netted that shot.
That was a major opportunity missed by Djokovic. Gamely, Alcaraz held on for 1-1 with a forehand drop shot winner and a dazzling forehand winner down the line. At 30-30 in the following game, Djokovic did not get in position properly for Alcaraz’s return down the middle and he netted a forehand. Down break point, Djokovic was beaten by a superbly executed backhand down the line passing shot from Alcaraz.
In a flash, Alcaraz had come from nearly being a break down in the final set to surging in front 2–1. He now was playing with unmistakable energy and inspiration. He held at love with an ace down the T for 3-1. Serving at 3-2, Alcaraz trailed 15-30 but he coaxed two forehand errors from Djokovic and held with another ace for 4-2 by releasing a 123 MPH ace out wide. Alcaraz was soaring to another level at this stage. He went to 5-3 with a second serve ace at 40-15 out wide in the deuce court.
Djokovic held comfortably at 15 for 4-5 and forced Alcaraz to serve out the match in the tenth game. At 15-15, the Spaniard lunged to his left for a remarkable drop volley winner off a well struck pass from Djokovic, who then used a deep return to set up a forehand winner for 30-30. Yet Alcaraz was unshakable. A 130 MPH first serve down the T provoked an errant blocked backhand return from Djokovic. At 40-30, Alcaraz connected with another excellent first serve. The return was short and then Alcaraz’s forehand rushed Djokovic into an error. In four hours and 42 minutes, Alcaraz upended Djokovic 1-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-1, 3-6, 6-4. It was a title hard earned and a victory well deserved. His fifth set performance was stirring and spectacular.
Djokovic commenced his quest for a fifth crown in a row at Wimbledon with a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) triumph over Argentina’s Pedro Cachin. The world No. 68 had Djokovic down an early break before the Serbian found his range and captured the first two sets comfortably. Nonetheless, Cachin served superbly all through the third set and the No. 2 seed could not break him. They went to a tie-break and Djokovic was, as usual, impenetrable.
Next on the agenda for Djokovic was the seasoned Jordan Thompson. The 29-year-old world No. 70 performed at a level much higher than his ranking. Djokovic broke him once in the opening set but the rest of the way he had his work cut out for him. Thompson was serving-and-volleying behind almost every first delivery and most of his second serves as well. He was sound on the volley throughout. Djokovic once more came through with another nearly impeccable tie-break display to seal the second set, releasing three aces, a service winner and an unstoppable second serve. He did not concede a point on serve, prevailing seven points to four. Djokovic managed one more service break in the final game of the match to record a 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5 victory.
His next adversary was a familiar foe. Djokovic had faced the burly Swiss powerhouse Stan Wawrinka on 26 occasions in the past, and had been victorious in 20 of those meetings. Wawrinka however, had ousted Djokovic every time he had won a Grand Slam tournament, upending the Serbian in a five set quarterfinal at the 2014 Australian Open and in four set, final round duels at the 2015 French Open and the 2016 U.S. Open.
Wawrinka, however, is a shadow of his former self. The 38-year-old walked onto Centre Court for his third round appointment with understandably low expectations. Djokovic proceeded to pick him apart for two sets, but then Wawrinka revisited his past and managed to move through the third set and into a tie-break. Wawrinka was ahead 5-3 with the 11PM curfew looming, but Djokovic refused to miss thereafter while the Swiss faltered. Djokovic swept four points in a row to reach the fourth round with a 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) win.
Now he took on the ever dangerous Hubert Hurkacz, a Wimbledon semifinalist two years ago and the man who handed Roger Federer his last Wimbledon loss. Hurkacz was seeded 17th this year after experiencing lackluster results most of the season. And yet, he had not lost his serve prior to his collision with Djokovic, and the 6’5” Polish competitor realized he had nothing to lose. He had never beaten his adversary in six previous career meetings.
Hurkacz served magnificently in this tense contest which started on Sunday evening and carried over into the following afternoon. The opening set went to a tie-break, and Hurkacz served consecutive aces to lead 6-3. Djokovic cagily collected the next two points and then blocked back a 130 MPH first serve from the Polish player. Hurkacz bungled a forehand approach and suddenly it was 6-6. Djokovic then used a sliced backhand to extract an error from Hurkacz before the Polish player missed a second serve return off the forehand. Five consecutive points had gone to Djokovic from triple set point down. He had taken the tie-break eight points to six.
As was the case in the first set, there were no service breaks in the second, although Djokovic was unlucky when he had a break point for 5-3. Hurkacz stabbed desperately at a volley which somehow went over the net. Djokovic chased it down but fell into the net as he made contact with the ball. In the second set tie-break, Hurkacz was once more poised for success, serving with a 5-4 lead. But he anxiously netted a backhand. Then Djokovic sent a backhand passing shot up the line for a winner for a 6-5 lead. Although Hurkacz saved a set point to make it 6-6, Djokovic was unrelenting, capturing two points in a row to secure the tie-break 8-6 and move in front two sets to love.
The curfew forced the players off the court, and so they concluded the contest the following day. The first night they had played under the roof but now they were outdoors and still Hurkacz was serving stupendously despite the sun and the wind. At 5-6 in the third set, he achieved his lone service break over the Serbian with some timely shotmaking, and so the two competitors battled into a fourth set. At long last, Djokovic found a way to break serve, making that move at 3-3. He then closed out the account with two love holds, including a pair of aces in the tenth game. Djokovic won this fiercely fought encounter 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (8-6), 5-7, 6-4.
He was now in the quarterfinals, and up against the No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev. The Russian was timing the ball beautifully in the first set, breaking Djokovic at 4-4. The set soon belonged to him 6-4. But Djokovic raised his game immediately at the start of the second, surging to a 5-0 lead. He took that set 6-1. He then served for the third set at 5-4 in a pulsating game featuring six deuces. Rublev had three break points before Djokovic sealed the game on his fifth set point. Djokovic was out in front to stay. He broke Rublev at 1-1 in the fourth set and took 16 of 19 points on serve. With Rublev serving at 3-5, the 25-year-old missed all five first serves. Djokovic refused to let him get away with it and wrapped up the victory 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. This was a high quality contest. Rublev put an awful lot of returns in play and his backhand has never been better. But he lost to a better craftsman and match player.
In the penultimate round, Djokovic took on No. 8 seed Jannik Sinner for only the third time. A year ago in the quarterfinals, Djokovic had rallied from two sets down to topple the Italian in five sets. This time around, the Serbian got the job done in straight sets, although all three sets were tough for the victor. Sinner was appearing in his first semifinal at a major. He had two break points in the first game, but Djokovic was unyielding and he held on. Djokovic pounced in the second game. He broke for 2-0 by unleashing a deep return that set up a scorching forehand which drew an error from Sinner. Djokovic protected that break sedulously, fending off another break point on his way to 4-1 by picking on the Sinner forehand again. Serving for the set at 5-3 and down 0-15, Djokovic produced three consecutive aces—all down the T—and followed with a service winner. Set to Djokovic, 6-3.
The favorite broke again for a 2-1 second set lead and then dealt calmly with two awkward moments in the fourth game. At 15-15, he grunted loudly after hitting a backhand down the line, perhaps thinking he had made a winner. But Sinner had a play on that ball. The umpire called him for a hinderance. Later, at deuce, he was given a time violation warning for taking too long between points. But he held on for 3-1. Despite squandering a great opportunity to break again when Sinner served at 2-4, 15-40, Djokovic methodically closed out that set. Serving for a two set lead at 5-4, he opened and closed that tenth game with aces and held masterfully at love to secure the set 6-4.
Across the third set, Sinner was highly impressive from the backcourt and served well under pressure. At 1-1 he rescued himself from 0-40. With Djokovic serving at 4-5, 15-40, Sinner had double set point but he could not exploit the opening. Djokovic, despite being perturbed by the crowd cheering presumably for a longer match, held on gamely for 5-5. In the ensuing tie-break, Sinner led 3-1 but double faulted. Djokovic swept six of the last seven points from that juncture to win 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) and make it to his ninth Wimbledon final.
As for Alcaraz, he opened his campaign with a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 triumph over the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, a 36-year-old who is moving into retirement. Only once did Alcaraz lose his serve. He managed to hit 38 winners while making only 14 unforced errors.
His next assignment was against Alexandre Muller, another Frenchman who is 26 years old and ranked No. 84 in the world. Alcaraz prevailed 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 with a sporadically brilliant display. He converted only 2 of 14 break points and this time his unforced error count was 41 versus 32 winners. Be that as it may, he did not lose his serve and he took the tie-break confidently and comfortably.
On he went into a third round skirmish with the Chilean Nicolas Jarry. The No. 25 seed pushed the Spaniard close to his limits before the top seed emerged with a 6-3, 6-7 (8-6), 6-3, 7-5 win. Jarry saved a set point at 5-6 in the second set tie-break with a well executed serve-and-volley combination and then took the next two points for one set all. After Alcaraz regained the upper hand in the third set, Jarry built a 3-0 lead in the fourth set and had the Spaniard down 15-40 in the fourth game. Alcaraz avoided getting broken for a second time in the set and then rallied from 1-4 to 4-4. After Jarry reached 5-4, Alcaraz collected three games in a row to get the victory.
In the round of 16 against Matteo Berrettini, Alcaraz was tested again before carving out a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 win over the 2021 Wimbledon finalist who had knocked out two seeds this time around. Berrettini had accounted for No. 15 Alex De Minaur and No. 19 Sascha Zverev, defeating both men in straight sets. But after his strong start against Alcaraz, the big serving Berrettini was broken four times over the last three sets as the Spaniard improved his return game significantly.
And so Alcaraz found himself in the quarterfinals facing the No. 6 seed Holger Rune of Denmark, a fellow 20-year-old. Many in the know anticipated a long and close confrontation but that was not the case at all. Alcaraz rolled to a 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4 victory without losing his serve. He took 79% of his first serve points and 71% on his second, facing only one break point and erasing it in the opening game of the match. That carried Alcaraz into a quarterfinal Centre Court showdown against No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev had been taken apart flagrantly in the final of Indian Wells by the Spaniard earlier in the season, losing that one-sided clash 6-3, 6-2.
In many ways, Alcaraz humiliated Medvedev on the California hard courts that were playing slow. Medvedev believed he would be better off on the grass against his younger rival, but that was not really so. Alcaraz got the first break of the match to move ahead 5-3 in the first set and never looked back. He blitzed to a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory despite losing his serve twice in the third set. Medvedev rushed, made inexplicable unprovoked errors, did not locate his serve well at all, and seemed muddled of mind. He had no game plan and was resigned to defeat by early in the second set. Alcaraz put 80% of his returns in play, his best number in the tournament. The view here is that the match-up with Alcaraz is a nightmare for Medvedev, who has no clue how to combat his rival.
For quite a while in the quarterfinals against the surging American Chris Eubanks, Medvedev was also at a loss about how to proceed tactically. Eubanks came from a set down to take the second and third sets with his uncompromising, free-wheeling, and exhilarating brand of attacking tennis. The fourth set went to a tie-break and Eubanks made it to 3-3, standing potentially four points from a stunning victory and a place in the penultimate round of the world’s premier tennis tournament. But it all seemed to hit him then, physically and psychologically. Medvedev rallied for a 6-4, 1-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 win. Nevertheless, it was a golden moment for Eubanks, who came into Wimbledon on the heels of a tournament win on the grass in Mallorca. The 27-year-old American had upset No. 12 seed and 2022 Wimbledon semifinalist Cam Norrie in a second round, four set contest, and he came from two sets to one down against No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas for a five set round of 16 victory. He may well be seeded at the U.S. Open, which would have been inconceivable even a few months ago.
Even a few weeks ago, it was inconceivable that Alcaraz could win Wimbledon this year given his lack of grass court experience. But triumphing at Queen’s Club gave him considerable encouragement. By the end of Wimbledon he was playing like a grass court veteran. After the first set of the final, Alcaraz varied his game exquisitely against Djokovic and made excellent use of the sliced backhand. He displayed surprising patience from the baseline and stayed in long rallies with the backcourt maestro. The bottom line is that he now can win on every surface.
Does this mean we are talking about a changing of the guard? Not so fast. Djokovic remains eager to collect more prestigious trophies. His bid for the Grand Slam this year is gone but he will be determined to win his fourth U.S. Open and 24th major in New York. He will inevitably take at least a few more majors. He had split two sets with Alcaraz at the French Open before the Spaniard got full body cramps. In their previous meeting a year ago on clay, Alcaraz prevailed 7-6 in the third set. Aside from pursuing more majors, Djokovic might well be fueled by meeting Alcaraz on more big occasions and turning the tables on this man 16 years his junior.
It may be essential for Alcaraz and Djokovic to keep developing a rivalry over the next couple of years for as long as the Serbian is still competing. There is no doubt in my mind that Alcaraz is going to win at least 15 majors in his career and perhaps more than that. In the long run he will be tested by the likes of Sinner, Rune and others in his generation. But the view here is that we need more memorable skirmishes now between Djokovic and Alcaraz. The tennis they played against each other at Wimbledon was nothing less than stupendous.
Roland Garros: Read the Shortest Editorial Ever Written by Director Ubaldo Scanagatta
This time, concluding a “historical” Roland Garros Ubitennis and its director wish to surprise its readers
by Ubaldo Scanagatta
No one more than Novak Djokovic would deserve to be the first tennis player to complete the Grand Slam, after the two achieved by Rod Laver (1962, 1969) and the first one of Don Budge (1938). I’d like to specify that what I have just claimed has nothing to do with the GOAT debate.
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