Novak Djokovic is headed back to the final of the French Open.
Djokovic scored a victory for the old guard Thursday afternoon in Paris, registering a kind of technical knockout against a cramping Carlos Alcaraz. Djokovic prevailed in four sets, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1, in a match the had figured to be one for the ages.
It pitted arguably the greatest player ever in Djokovic, the winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, trying to hold off Alcaraz, a 20-year-old looking to move one step closer to completing his takeover of the sport. Djokovic and Alcaraz had shown themselves to be a level better than anyone else during the past year as they took turns winning Grand Slam titles and clamoring for the world’s top ranking.
And for more than two hours, it was a match for the ages. Djokovic played nearly perfect tennis to seize the first set, only to have Alcaraz overcome his early tightness to showcase his power and magical shotmaking in the next. As Djokovic left the court for a bathroom break, there was every reason to believe this would go five sets and more than four hours, like so many classic matches Djokovic has played during his storied career.
It didn’t. Not even close.
Early in the third set, after Djokovic had pushed Alcaraz into the most taxing tennis he has had to play in the tournament, leg cramps overcame the young Spaniard. At 1-1 he headed for his chair and asked for treatment from a trainer. The move cost him the next game, one in which he would have served, because the request did not occur during a scheduled changeover.
That hardly mattered though, because Alcaraz could still barely move when he returned to the court. He quickly lost the next four games and the set, 6-1.
He then left the court for another break and came back slightly stronger, but the lightning quick movement that is one of the hallmarks of his game remained missing in action. The outcome became a mere matter of time, which was fitting, because in a sense, Djokovic had made it that way from the start of the afternoon.
He will now player the winner of the second semifinal between Alexander Zverev of Germany and Casper Ruud of Norway in Sunday’s final. It will be Djokovic’s 34th Grand Slam singles final. If he wins, he will take the lead in the race for the most Grand Slam singles championships among men. He is currently tied at 22 with Rafael Nadal, who pulled out of this French Open with hip and leg injuries.
Matthew Futterman is a veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.” @mattfutterman
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