It was a titanic, 3½-hour-plus showdown between the two titans of the men’s game at the moment — the third time they’ve played each other in Djokovic’s past three events, each on a different surface — and set the stage for what will be an expected meeting to determine the champion at Flushing Meadows, where play begins Monday and finishes on Sept. 10.
Last weekend’s contest at the hard-court Cincinnati Masters, in which Djokovic, who is 36, saved a championship point in the second set and Alcaraz, who is 20, saved four in the third before succumbing 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4), also served to symbolize the state of change the sport currently finds itself in, a year removed from Serena Williams’ farewell match in New York and Roger Federer’s retirement announcement soon thereafter.
Alcaraz is The Next Big Thing, the winner of the 2022 U.S. Open who grabbed his second Grand Slam title last month at Wimbledon by beating — yes, that’s right — Djokovic. And Djokovic, the owner of 23 major trophies, is the only member of The Big Three competing nowadays, what with Federer (who has 20) done and Rafael Nadal (22) out since January with a hip problem but eyeing a return for one last hurrah in 2024.
“For so many years, the game has been dominated by legends of the sport, but Father Time is undefeated. Everyone has to kind of go on to their next stage and they have to put the rackets down. We’re seeing that unfortunately with Serena, with Roger, with Rafa. There is going to be a bit of a transition period,” said Chris Eubanks, a 27-year-old from Atlanta who reached the Wimbledon men's quarterfinals. “It leaves a lot of parity and it leaves a lot of opportunities for other players in the men’s and women’s games to kind of make a name for themselves.”
No. 1-ranked Iga Swiatek, who is 22, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, 25, and No. 4 Elena Rybakina, 24, appear poised to stay near the top of the women’s game — Swiatek already has won four Slam titles, including the 2022 U.S. Open; the others have one apiece — and No. 6 Coco Gauff, just 19, might be ready to etch her name on one of the four most prestigious trophies in tennis.
Still, none has established herself as a definitive heir to Williams.
“There is a shift,” said France's Caroline Garcia, who reached the semifinals in New York a year ago. “There are young players coming, like Alcaraz and Iga.”
The sport’s leaders hope someone will step forward.
“For those of you who have long wondered about the future of tennis as we transition out of a golden age where you have had some of the best men and women of all-time competing against each other simultaneously,” said Lew Sheer, the CEO and executive director of the U.S. Tennis Association, the national federation that runs the U.S. Open, “we saw 2022 as a year of emerging stars.”
Perhaps. It's true there were 10 first-time Masters 1000 champions on the men’s side over the past three seasons, a group that includes Alcaraz, of course, but also another 20-year-old, Holger Rune, and Jannik Sinner, 22.
“We’re starting to see new faces at the Grand Slams and Masters. It’s kind of the last step to dethrone players like Djokovic and Nadal — and it’s coming,” said Felix Auger-Aliassime, a 23-year-old Canadian who was a U.S. Open semifinalist two years ago. “Carlos probably is beginning a bit of a switch of the guard. But Djokovic probably hasn’t said his last word.”
That certainly appeared to be Djokovic's message in Cincinnati, where he ripped off his shirt and roared after finally dispatching Alcaraz.
All in all, it was perfect preparation for Djokovic as he returns to the U.S. Open after being unable to travel to the United States last year because he isn't vaccinated against COVID-19.
Djokovic said facing Alcaraz reminded him of taking on Nadal in their primes — which was quite some time ago.
“Boy, you never give up, man. Jesus Christ,” Djokovic said, drawing a laugh from Alcaraz not long after the Spaniard was crying into a towel.
“I mean, I love that about you, but sometimes I wish that you’d maybe play a few points just like this, you know?” Djokovic continued, waving his right hand without purpose.
Alcaraz offered nice words, too.
“I learned a lot,” he told Djokovic, “from a champion like you.”
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