Alcaraz, Djokovic and the only thing that matters: three or 24.
Cincinnati gave tennis the best final in the tournament’s history and one of the best matches in 2023. Carlos Alcaraz cried, his brother cried, Novak Djokovic was moved and millions of people all over the world were, quite simply, dumbfounded. And yet, it is not enough.
The only thing that matters now is two numbers: three or 24. The only thing that matters happens in eight weeks of the year, in the four Grand Slam tournaments.
It is Djokovic’s fault (23 titles), but also Roger Federer’s (20) and Rafael Nadal’s (22). They are the ones who got the public used to a player owning two dozen majors, they are the ones who turned the Grand Slams into earthly tournaments instead of stages only suitable for an exceptional triumph.
Thus, tournaments and stages with history, from the Italian Open to the Monte Carlo tournament, passing through Miami, Indian Wells, Hamburg, Gstaad, Kitzbühel, Queen’s or Cincinnati itself, take second or third place. They are all warm-ups for the Grand Slams.
“The smaller tournaments are sometimes neglected by the ATP, and even by the players. We have entered a world where people no longer give much value to the smaller tournaments. I think it’s a mistake,” Toni Nadal said recently in an interview with CLAY.
Nadal senior knows what he is talking about, because he is the director of the ATP 250 Mallorca, a grass-court tournament in Spain.
“I was told by Felix (Auger-Aliassime): you win any tournament and it’s almost nothing, you have to win a Grand Slam to get recognition. Not even winning a Masters 1000… Players sometimes take small tournaments as if they were an exhibition tournament, without the necessary passion. It should be clear to the ATP, when they make the tournaments, that these smaller tournaments help generate business for a larger number of players”.
The combination is powerful: the extraordinary history that Djokovic, Nadal and Federer shaped, and that Alcaraz now continues, plus the growth of the Grand Slams and the lack of interest in a large part of the tennis powers for tournaments outside those four.
These two factors mean that the focus for the rest of the year is on Sunday 10 September in New York. Even Djokovic wants to meet Alcaraz on that day.
“I feel like it was a Grand Slam final,” said the Serb after a 5-7, 7-6 (9-7), 7-6 (7-4) win over Alcaraz in three hours and 49 minutes, the longest best-of-three-set final since the ATP Tour began play in 1990.
“I hope we play in a couple of weeks in New York. For the crowd, at least, I don’t know about me,” he added with a chuckle after a match in which he had match point against him in the second-set tie break.
The awards ceremony, in which Alcaraz wiped away tears, included a stinging dialogue between the two.
– Djokovic: Boy, you never give up, Jesus Christ. I mean, I love this about you but I wish you’d play some points you (with gestures) care less about.
– Alcaraz: Spaniards never die
– Djokovic: I’ve experienced this before….
Wonderful exchange, because there is so much in it. The recognition of Alcaraz as his new great rival, the recognition of Nadal’s history (and who knows if his comeback) and the recognition that for himself the years go by and Alcaraz, who is just 20, might well consider giving him a break from time to time.
What is coming, however, is anything but a truce. Comes the question, three or 24? Third Grand Slam trophy for Alcaraz or 24th for Djokovic? Another US Open for the Serb would allow him to equal the highest Grand Slam winner, the Australian Margaret Court. And to seek, in 2024, the number 25 so that no one, ever again, will dare to discuss who and what he was.
The smaller tournaments are mere spectators.