Natsukashii, the responsibility of Djokovic and Alcaraz
PARIS – Natsukashii. That’s what Friday’s semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz at the French Open is all about, taking on the “happy nostalgia” that tennis demands of them, a burden it makes no sense to place on the shoulders of the other semi-finalists, Casper Ruud and Alexander Zverev.
Natsukashii is a Japanese term that refers to the instant in which you are, suddenly, transported to a beautiful memory that fills you with sweetness. A memory to be kept and worth being fond of. In the Japanese worldview, it is more about joy and gratitude for the past than a desire to return to it. It points to how fortunate you were to have had a certain experience.
Translated into tennis: how happy we were with those duels between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer! But those matches will never happen again, we have to remember them with gratitude, with happy nostalgia, and live in the present.
Both the Spaniard and the Serb are aware of the responsibility they have.
“I would say since the draw came out, everyone was expecting that match, you know, the semifinal against Novak. Myself as well. I really want to play that match,” said Alcaraz who is going like a smiling bulldozer in Paris. All credit to him, only he is able to make a bulldozer smile.
“It’s the match that, you know, a lot of people want to see. It’s definitely the biggest challenge for me, you know, so far in the tournament. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. He’s definitely a guy to beat here. I’m looking forward to that,” admitted Djokovic, who has been playing at a consistent level on the Parisian clay.
Djokovic seems to be happening in part what he experienced in 2021, when he only needed to win one match to win the Grand Slam, the four major tournaments in the same year. On 12 September, nerves got the better of the Serb, who was the favourite against Russian Daniil Medvedev. He lost 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 and 6-4. He had in his hands a feat that no man has achieved since 1969. And it slipped through his fingers like sand through his fingers.
This Friday, Djokovic will be facing a similar situation: he is two victories away from becoming the most successful tennis player of all time, from sealing a record that is unlikely to be broken, that of 23 Grand Slam titles. He would break the 22-all tie he holds with a recently operated Nadal, who is struggling with his physique to say goodbye to tennis at a reasonable level in 2024.
Djokovic today is him and his circumstances. If he has already won 22, why wouldn’t he win 23? For the same reason he won 27 consecutive matches in Grand Slam tournaments in 2021 and failed in the 28th. Because when history calls, sometimes the arm stiffens and the legs stiffen.
Some of that happened in the quarter-finals to Djokovic, during his victory over Russia’s Karen Khachanov.
“Look, everything was going in a great direction and then I stepped out on the court today and probably part of me stayed in the locker room. That’s how I felt, that’s how I played.”
Against 20-year-old Alcaraz, Djokovic, 36, cannot afford to leave pieces of himself in the locker room. The Spaniard, confident, voracious, insatiable and in a state of tennis grace, demands that his opponents give 100 per cent. And often that is not enough either.
Once again, Natsukashii. Between 2006 and 2022, Djokovic played 109 matches against Nadal and Federer. With the Spaniard he has a balance of 30-29 in favour, which may add some more duels. With the Swiss, the score was 27-23 and will not move again.
The Serb is, then, the ambassador of an era of glory that added 149 chapters (Nadal outnumbered Federer 24 to 16). Djokovic must negotiate when the baton is definitively handed over to Alcaraz, who passed over the generation of Tstsipas, Zverev, Medvedev and others with a tennis arrogance to amaze.
An Alcaraz who never even officially met Federer – he only shared some training -, who lost two of the three times he faced Nadal and who defeated Djokovic the only time they played: 7-6 in the third set in the Madrid 2022 semi-finals.
Which is more important,” Alcaraz was asked, “your experience or your youth?
“I’d like to think my youth, but it will be his 45th Grand Slam semi-final and the second for me. I would say his experience weighs more. But I’m not going to think about that.”