The 2023 Cincinnati Masters final provided the latest exhilarating encounter between Novak Djokovic and the man poised to dominate the game once the tennis legend retires: Carlos Alcaraz.
The Serbian won a gruelling encounter to claim the title and suggested the match had given him more hunger and been one of the best of his remarkable career, while Alcaraz called the clash “amazing”.
“From the beginning until the end, we’ve both been through so much,” Djokovic said afterwards. “So many ups and downs, highs and lows, incredible points, poor games, heat strokes, coming back.”
It was Alcaraz who got the better of the two at the Wimbledon final, but any suggestion that Djokovic’s time at the top was quickly coming to an end have been dispelled in recent months. After winning in Cincinnati, Djokovic claimed his 24th grand slam singles title at the US Open, defeating Daniil Medvedev in the final after the Russian had eliminated Alcaraz.
He followed that up by winning the Paris Masters and will end 2023 as the world No. 1, but there will be one more meeting with Alcaraz before the season comes to a close: the two will clash in the semifinals of the ATP Finals in Turin on November 18.
The Sporting News takes a look at the head-to-head of a rivalry that looks like thrilling tennis fans for at least another year or so.
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As of November 2023, the head-to-head record between these two is nicely balanced: each has won two of their four matches.
Alcaraz had already made a statement of intent by beating one of Djokovic’s fellow modern greats and a compatriot the Spaniard so admires, Rafael Nadal, on his way to a first meeting with the Serbian at Madrid in 2022.
Lest anyone suspected contests between Alcaraz and Djokovic would not be keenly contested, each of their three sets went beyond 10 games: Djokovic took the first-set tie-break to five, then Alcaraz won the final set by the same scoreline after picking up the second 7-5.
A year later, Djokovic lost the first set 7-5 in Cincinnati but won the next two on tie-breaks, surviving championship point to win a thriller.
That was the fourth match the players have shared. In between, there were two memorable Grand Slam showdowns.
By the time they met at the 2023 French Open, Alcaraz’s rapid rise had led some to suggest that he could leave Djokovic in the shadows even before the man known as ‘Nole’ retired.
Billed as a match for the ages between youth and experience, Alcaraz entered with the chance to hold on to a No.1 spot in the rankings that he had traded four times with Djokovic that year already.
Alcaraz made a blistering start by taking the first set 6-3, then yielded the second set 7-5 to leave no-one the wiser over the destiny of a place in the final. But the 20-year-old’s understandable tension and excitement then told in cruel fashion as he was beset by cramp early in the third set.
With his chief pretender struggling to move freely, Djokovic cruised to victory at the expense of only two games in the third and fourth sets, expressing sympathy for Alcaraz after a match that became an unfortunate anti-climax while making talk of Djokovic’s demise seem foolish.
When they met again in the Wimbledon final little more than a month later, Alcaraz recovered from his crushing defeat in Paris to prove his endurance and class in an epic.
Djokovic appeared to be in no mood to hang around as he began the action by winning a third successive game across the two matches 6-1. This time it looked to be nerves rather than fatigue that could condemn Alcaraz to another near-miss against the master.
To his immense credit, Alcaraz clawed himself level by taking a second-set tie-break and turned the tables by claiming the third set 6-1. The defending champion once again showed how little there is to choose between himself and Alcaraz on his way to the fourth set, only for Alcaraz to win the fifth 6-4 for his first Wimbledon triumph.
The result in Cincinnati in August 2023 made the overall score 2-2 between Alcaraz and Djokovic, with neither man beating the other on successive occasions.
Both players suffered from cramp at times in the heat. “This rivalry just gets better,” said Djokovic. “It gets better and better.
“He is an amazing player. Tonnes of respect for him. For such a young player to show so much poise in important moments is impressive.”
Aside from the French Open, all of the matches have seen Alcaraz and Djokovic finish within five points of each other’s total. The closest was the Wimbledon final, when Alcaraz won 168 points to Djokovic’s 166.
Djokovic has won nine more games than Alcaraz in the head to head, helped by the 10 more he won during the final two sets in Paris.
Djokovic’s 15-year start on Alcaraz is reflected in the overall stats, with both players right-handers and Alcaraz the slightly smaller man.
Djokovic first became world No.1 in July 2011 and had been inside the top seven for more than six consecutive years when they played at Cincinnati. His 397 total weeks at the top of the rankings is a record.
Alcaraz first became No.1 in September 2022, initially staying there until January 2023 and reclaiming the position three times before Cincinnati.
Stats correct as of November 17, 2023. Source: ATP Tour