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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, June 9, 2023


Novak Djokovic stands one win from a men's record 23rd major crown after grinding down world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in a blockbuster Roland Garros semifinal.

Photo credit: Julian Finney/Getty

Leaning on his Babolat racquet as if it were a cane, a cramping Carlos Alcaraz hobbled behind the baseline.

In a blockbuster battle of the ages, Alcaraz stayed in step for two sets.

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A ruthless Novak Djokovic dispensed growing pains.

No. 3 Djokovic battered the world No. 1 with body blows until he broke him down in a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 victory to reach his seventh Roland Garros final and 34th major championship match.

It was Djokovic's 20th straight Grand Slam match victory and puts him one win from a men's record 23rd Grand Slam championship to take sole possession of the record he now shares with rival Rafael Nadal. Djokovic will face 2022 finalist Casper Ruud in Sunday's final.

In today's second semifinal, Ruud reeled off the final seven games topping three-time semifinalist Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. Ruud saved eight of nine break points to reach his second straight Roland Garros final and third major title match. 

Djokovic has ruptured Ruud's weaker backhand wing sweeping all four of their prior meetings, including a pair of semifinal wins on Rome's red clay.

Grand Slam champions produced a phenomenal level of tennis for two sets, engaging in electrifying rallies that included Alcaraz pulling off the most outrageous squash shot winner of this French Open fortnight. 

On the hottest day of the tournament, Djokovic kept cool, did not give up much ground and took the match to the top seed at times.

"It's not easy to maintain that kind of intensity on the court," Djokovic said. "The first set and a half I was really playing very well. I had some chances. Then I think toward the end of the second set, he was the better player and he deserved to win the second set.

"I had to play aggressive. I had to take the ball early because if I didn't do that he was going to be the aggressor. I know that he's the kind of player that loves to play that kind of style.

"He's very, very fast, very dynamic, a lot of power in his shots, a lot of intensity, so I had to match that and try to do even better. So it was very exhausting battle for the two sets. I'm just incredibly proud to reach another final. I'm very, very happy."

Afterward, Alcaraz said the tension and physicality of the match caused his cramps, which escalated to spasms of full body cramps.

"I would say the first set and the second set was really, really intense, you know, and I started to cramp, you know, in my arm," Alcaraz said. "At the beginning of the third set I started to cramp every part of my body, not only the legs. The arms, as well, every part of the legs.

"Well, it was really tough for me to move at the third set, and in the fourth set let's say I had a little chance, but it was really tough. You know, my full body start to cramp."

Master of all surfaces Djokovic is one win from a triple shot of history.

If the 36-year-old Serbian superstar defeats Casper Ruud in Sunday's final, he will stand alone as Grand Slam king, eclipse Nadal as the oldest men's Roland Garros champion and become the first man in history to win each of the four majors three times or more.

A victory on Sunday will vault Djokovic back to world No. 1 on Monday and the Australian Open and Wimbledon champion will hold three of the four major crowns on three different surfaces.

Talk about peaking in Paris.

On the hottest day of the tournament, Djokovic's tactical acumen, experience and fitness were essential elements to his first win over the US Open champion. Though Djokovic is 16 years older than Alcaraz, he managed the moment and his body with more efficiency, saving two of the 12 break points he faced and conserving emotional energy compared to the perpetually-bouncing Alcaraz.

Two sets of inspiring tennis turned to two sets of inevitability as Djokovic dissected the compromised top seed with precision and dispensed him with punishment. On this day, experience beat youth. Djokovic, who once battled breathing and cramping issues in his younger years, has transformed himself into one of the best-conditioned champions in Open Era history and applied that vise-grip of fitness to squeeze the Spaniard.

After suffering hand and leg cramps in the second game of the third set, Alcaraz forfeited serve in lieu of game three for treatment as his legs locked up. Though he battled on gamely, Alcaraz never really recovered as Djokovic snapped the Spaniard's 12-match major winning streak.

Riding a 19-match Grand Slam winning streak into this generational clay clash, Djokovic had not dropped a major match since falling to rival Rafael Nadal in the 2022 French Open quarterfinals. The Serbian superstar's vast experience and Grand Slam semifinal success—Djokovic had won 19 of his last major semifinals—collided with the 20-year-old Spaniard's explosive energy and confounding variety.

Thirteen months ago in Madrid, Alcaraz mixed forehand rockets with feather duster droppers, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5) rising to his maiden Mutua Madrid Open final in a dizzying three hour, 35-minute classic match. The then 19-year-old Alcaraz made history as the first man to conquer king of clay Rafael Nadal and 20-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic in succession at a clay-court tournament.

Winning a drop shot duel helped Djokovic earn a break point in the fourth game. In a stirring 14-shot rally, Djokovic ran down a drop shot, slid his reply down the line over the wood net post then darted left knocking off a backhand volley to break for 3-1. Djokovic threw a massive celebratory fist as the crowd, including his parents and wife Jelena, erupted in supportive roar.

In an ideal start, Djokovic backed up the break at 30 for a 4-1 lead.

The third seed double faulted to face a break point in the seventh game. Djokovic shanked a forehand yet still saved break point when Alcaraz netted a backhand. As the game waged on, Djokovic struggled to spot his first serve with the wind at his back, but showed his poise sliding forward to angle off a backhand volley winner erasing a third break point.

A gritty Djokovic stood tall during a 15-minute hold for 5-2.

Hammering a heavy return, Djokovic rattled out an error for set point. Alcaraz kicked the wide serve to set up a sweeping forehand swing volley, eventually holding force the Serbian to serve it out.

The lightning quick Spaniard seldom meets a ball he doesn't believe he can reach.

Sprinting with his back to net, Alcaraz pulled of an audacious forehand flick squash-shot pass that settled inside the sideline. That circus-shot winner left Djokovic applauding and Alcaraz's coach, 2003 Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, holding his black BMW baseball cap with both hands in physical reaction to a mind-blowing pass.

Alcaraz ducked a Djokovic smash holding for a 2-1 second-set lead.

Striking crisply, Djokovic was hitting his backhand down the line to create space before dragging the Spaniard the opposite direction to force him to hit running forehands. Alcaraz, who tends to crank crosscourt forehands on the run, was missing some but began to find the range on his drop shot holding for 4-3.

Following that hold, Djokovic, who was not wearing the elbow sleeve he wore earlier in clay season, took a visit from the trainer for deep massage treatment of his right forearm.

Facing his fifth break point of the match, Djokovic dodged it when Alcaraz sailed a forehand well long. Earning his second break point of the game, Alcaraz slammed a deep diagonal forehand scoring his first break for 5-3 with a clenched fist.

Serving for the set, Alcaraz had a clear look at a forehand pass, but was over amped and banged it well long to face a second break point. Measuring a backhand, Djokovic drilled it down the line cleaning the sideline to break back.

Shrugging it off, Alcaraz came right back to earn triple set point in the 10th game.

The Wimbledon winner was unwavering. Djokovic dodged the first point when Alcaraz, streaking forward at a frenetic pace for a dropper, missed a forehand. Djokovic followed with a serve-and-volley and 125 mph serve winner defending all three set points with shrewd aggression and spiking a run of six straight points.

That spirited stand prompted former heavyweight champion and tennis fanatic Mike Tyson, wearing a canary-colored shirt in the front row, to stand and salute Djokovic with a double fist pump with the set deadlocked 5-5.

Unleashing thunderous strikes, Alcaraz earned triple set point on the Serbian's serve for the second game in a row. This time, Djokovic could not withstand the stress send a shot long as Alcaraz turned to his box and screamed taking the second set.

On-court temperatures were in the high 80s as Djokovic left the court to change clothes, while Alcaraz refueled for the fight ahead.

After a two-hour, 25-minute physical battle, Alcaraz began stretching his hand out as if suffering hand cramps and then began to extend his legs in a sign of suffering calf cramps.

A concerned Djokovic came over to check on the world No. 1 while chair umpire Aurélie Tourte came down to discuss Alcaraz's seemingly fragile physical state while the Spaniard stood still extending his cramping leg.

In a loss of conditioning rule, Alcaraz was permitted to receive treatment for cramping and as a result conceded his serve since the treatment was not for an injury. Chair umpire Tourte explained that to Djokovic and later the crowd as the Serbian went up 2-1 without playing a third game.

Djokovic held to stretch his lead to 3-1. Pacing slowly between points, Alcaraz could not push up on his legs serving and wasn't moving too much as he dropped serve at love before another visit from the trainer.

The two-time champion reeled off six straight games for a two-sets to one lead.

At that point, the result seemed a formality as Alcaraz was nearly stationary during points.

At the urging of coach Ferrero, the 20-year-old Spaniard left the court for a clothing change after the third set.

By the time the fourth set began, Alcaraz was moving a bit better, but Djokovic was in no mood to offer a reprieve. Extending his strong hold on this semifinal, Djokovic saved a pair of break points bellowing in affirmation as he worked through a tense hold to start the set.

Battling both the 22-time Grand Slam champion and his body, Alcaraz wasn't gaining traction in either test. The physically-fried Spaniard slapped a couple of backhands into the middle of the net as Djokovic broke for 2-0.

On the opposite side of net, Djokovic was locked in and making Alcaraz work as he cruised through the confirmation hold for 3-0.

Djokovic sped out to a 5-0 lead then closed when Alcaraz netted a forehand.

It's a pity the cramping punctured the buzz from this pulsating match, but in the end Djokovic was too tough, too experienced and too determined driving into his 34th major final.


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