He’s back! Novak Djokovic’s shirt-ripping celebration on Sunday night had a cartoonish vibe that matched the larger-than-life exploits we had just seen on the court.
By defeating his latest challenger Carlos Alcaraz across an astonishing 3h 49min – the longest ATP final in history – Djokovic reminded us that his career has played like a two-decade blockbuster. As Graham Gooch once said to Ian Botham, “Who writes your scripts?”
Above all, this 5-7, 7-6, 7-6 victory in the Cincinnati final proved that the rise of another credible rival – a youthful successor to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – has not diminished Djokovic’s motivation one jot.
Quite the reverse, in fact: he looks inspired by the rise of another giant-in-the-making. When you have already clocked up 1,069 professional wins, routine straight-setters no longer get you out of bed.
For those Britons who were put off by a 1.45am finish (GMT) or a lack of Amazon Prime, this was another epic match that really caught light after Alcaraz – the Wimbledon champion, lest we forget – fumbled the chance for a quick kill at 7-5, 4-2 up.
At that stage, Djokovic had been labouring in the humidity of an Ohio heatwave. Red-faced and wilting, he summoned the doctor and at one stage looked so disorientated that he served three successive double-faults – something that neither of the ex-pros in the commentary box could remember him doing before.
But Djokovic is unparalleled when it comes to rebooting himself physically. He broke back, drawing belief from a shonky Alcaraz service game, and saved a match point in the ensuing tie-break with a textbook serve-and-forehand combo.
The third set was the most sinuous of the three, as Djokovic this time failed to serve it out. Briefly outflanked by some impudently creative shot-making from Alcaraz, Mr Clinical reverted to mechanical accuracy until his showier opponent eventually coughed up the final error: a forehand return that flew wide.
A butterfly broken on a wheel? Perhaps, but the contrast of styles here always makes for riveting viewing. As far as men’s tennis is concerned, Djokovic v Alcaraz is the only show in town.
The two leading players on the rankings chart, they seem to meet in every event that they both enter. (Which is a shrinking number as Djokovic increasingly limits his schedule.) After previous skirmishes at the French Open and Wimbledon, their head-to-head record is perfectly poised at two wins apiece. And tennis’s suits will be praying that they meet in the US Open final three weeks’ hence. If not, the whole event could feel like a let-down.
Interviewed on the court afterwards, Djokovic described this as “one of the toughest and most exciting matches I’ve ever been a part of, at any level, against any opponent”. Alcaraz then teared up at the presentation ceremony while thanking his brother Alvaro – who had been watching from the stands – for supporting him.
Later, Alcaraz told reporters: “I feel proud of myself, honestly. I was talking [in the speech] and I don’t know why I was crying because I fight until the last ball. I almost beat one of the greatest of all time from our sport. It’s crazy to talk about it right now, but I left the court really, really happy with what I did.”
Should Alcaraz be so comfortable with this setback? As a British observer, it was tempting to draw parallels with the Shanghai final of 2012. That was the occasion when Andy Murray, coming off wins over Djokovic at the Olympics and US Open, wasted five match points to level up their head-to-head score at eight wins apiece.
After Djokovic escaped, Murray would not beat him on a hard court for almost three years. He ended up on the wrong side of a 25-11 scoreline against his near-exact contemporary.
Clearly, this is an imperfect comparison. Alcaraz is already a more complete player at 20 than Murray, as well as a chilled-out character who seems far less likely to brood over near-misses. He also has time on his side against an opponent who turned 36 in May.
But the moral of the story still feels relevant. It’s a rare day when you have Djokovic at your mercy at 7-5, 4-2, 15-0, and these are not the sort of leads you want to squander.
As the tennis circus rolls on to New York Alcaraz fans can only hope that he and coach Juan Carlos Ferrero draw valuable lessons, in the same way that they did after he cramped up at the French Open ten weeks ago. No pressure, but the whole sporting world is watching.
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