Djokovic-Alcaraz rivalry catches fire after 'crazy' Cincinnati Open final

Serb exacts measure of revenge for Wimbledon defeat in extraordinary match as attention now turns to Flushing Meadow

Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic during the trophy ceremony after the Cincinnati Open final. Getty
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It was, for too long, a rivalry played out primarily in the rankings, but boy has it caught fire since Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz finally started to duel on a regular basis.

Circumstances – namely injuries and Covid-related travel restrictions – had limited the number of opportunities the two current titans of men's tennis had squared off on court, despite a constant grapple for top spot in the standings.

The pair's thrilling maiden encounter, last May, went the way of Alcaraz in the Madrid Masters semi-finals as the fast-rising Spaniard edged the incomparable Serb by the slimmest of margins, but the tennis world had to wait a full 13 months for the next showdown.

When it came, in the French Open semi-finals in June, a match that was shaping up to be a potential classic was frustratingly interrupted by all-consuming cramps that left Alcaraz barely able to walk or swing a racquet. He soldiered on but the match was over as a contest and the long-awaited second act ended in anti-climax.

A rivalry that fans had hoped would fill the void left by the retirement of Roger Federer and the increasing absence of the perennially injured Rafael Nadal had yet to satisfy the appetite. So, when Djokovic and Alcaraz strode on to Wimbledon's Centre Court five weeks later to battle for the most prestigious prize in tennis, there was a hint of trepidation mixed in with all the hype and excitement.

Could this young kid who had, until this summer, yet to show championship-winning form on grass, really topple the seven-time defending champion? It seemed the Wimbledon final was the least likely place to kickstart this much-desired rivalry, and when Djokovic took the first set 6-1, those concerns looked to be realised.

What ultimately transpired was an all-time classic as Alcaraz did indeed dethrone the king over five exhilarating sets, and the rivalry fans had so craved had finally come to life.

Yet, if that Wimbledon match fully sparked the rivalry, then the Cincinnati Open final on Sunday night saw it catch fire.

Once again it went the full distance, both in terms of the scoreline and the way in which Djokovic and Alcaraz pushed themselves to their absolute limits. It was two athletes operating at the very pinnacle, drawing the best out of each other, and it was a marvel to watch.

"It's crazy, I don't know what I can say," said 23-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic, who was seen by the doctors early in the second set for heat illness in a battle that lasted three hours and 44 minutes, before he finally took the victory on his fifth match point having earlier saved one himself.

"It's tough to describe. It was the toughest I've ever played in my life. From start to finish we both went through highs, lows, incredible points, bad games, heatstroke, comebacks.

"Overall this was the toughest and most exciting match I've ever been a part of. It's matches like these that I continue to work for."

The result ties up the head-to-head at two wins each between players who have traded the No 1 ranking six times this year. Alcaraz remains in top spot but Djokovic has closed the gap to a mere 20 points. Third-ranked Daniil Medvedev is a whopping 3,535 points adrift of the Serb.

"I feel proud of myself, honestly. I don't know why I was crying because I fight until the last ball," an emotional Alcaraz said. "I almost beat one of the greatest of all time in our sport. I left the court really happy with what I did."

The next opportunity for this budding rivalry - which Djokovic warned "is just getting better and better" - will be the not-so-small matter of the US Open final.

Alcaraz, 20, returns next week to the scene of his historic maiden Grand Slam triumph, where 12 months ago his final victory over Casper Ruud made him the youngest No 1 in ATP Tour history. Djokovic, kept away by those aforementioned Covid-related travel restrictions, will be back and determined to capture his third major title of the year, and with it make an irrefutable statement that he remains the king of the court.

There will be competitive draws to navigate before Alcaraz v Djokovic Part 5, but their respective form suggests it will take something unexpected for it not to happen.

"I'm hoping we can play again in a few weeks in New York," Djokovic said during the trophy ceremony, "that would be nice... for the crowd, I don't know about me!"

Based on the evidence from Wimbledon and Cincinnati, tennis fans will be hoping just as much.

Updated: August 21, 2023, 12:57 PM