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Djokovic stops Alcaraz, betrayed by his physique and mind

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PARIS – It wasn’t Novak Djokovic’s mind, it was Carlos Alcaraz’s physique. And Alcaraz’s mind, too, the nerves of a 20-year-old. What was shaping up to be one of the biggest matches of the year abruptly changed course with an injury to the Spaniard that opened the door Friday for the Serb to win 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 and advance to the final of the French Open tennis tournament, where he will seek what no man has ever achieved: a 23rd Grand Slam title on Sunday.

Djokovic’s opponent will be Norway’s Casper Ruud -2022 finalist-, who won against Germany’s Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-4 6-0.

“I’m sad for Carlos, I’m sorry, I hope he can recover and come back soon. I told him at the net that he knows how young he is, he’s got that ahead of him, he’s going to win this tournament many times, he’s an amazing competitor and a very nice guy. I don’t know if he should continue or retire, but I congratulate him for the fighting spirit,” the 36-year-old Serb said of his 16-year-old younger opponent.

“What happened today is mental,” said Alcaraz after the match, who had cramps all over his body since the end of the first set. “I went into the match more tense than usual, I didn’t know how to relax, from the beginning of the match I had an extra tension that takes its toll on you in the end”.

The match between Djokovic and Alcaraz was played in Paris in June, but the conditions were those of Melbourne in January: very windy, very hot. Although, yes, it was Paris, because as both players entered the stadium the crowd was clearly in Alcaraz’s favour. Respectful and somewhat listless applause for the Serb, enthusiastic applause for the Spaniard.

It was 15:03 and Alcaraz smashed a parallel forehand into the net on the first point of the match. The ball was bouncing in the air, it was not easy to be precise in that infernal wind. They measured each other, tested each other and missed many balls until one of the points of the tournament: a fantasy exchange that included a drop, counterpunch, hits to the limit of the physical possibilities and a brilliant anticipation at the net by the Serb to break and take a 3-1 lead.

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Djokovic showed what it is to be an “old fox”. Instead of running drops, the blow to which the Spanish is addicted, he threw them. Instead of submitting to straightforward exchanges, he was throwing balls at different heights and hammering with his backhand to an Alcaraz uncomfortable as never before in the tournament.

Alcaraz had three break points to close the gap to 3-4, but Djokovic proved to be Djokovic in the afternoon at the Philippe Chatrier and took the set 6-3.

In the second set, at 1-1 and 15-0 on Alcaraz’s serve, tennis witnessed a mammoth point. The Spaniard ran a drop, arrived, Djokovic returned the ball behind his back, already to the back of the court.

Alcaraz, who is made of rubber, reached the ball with his back to the net and hit it sideways, like a polo stick, past Djokovic, who applauded him at the net with a smile of admiration.

The wind dropped a little, although far from ceasing to blow, the heat grew and the Spaniard and the Serb entered into a competition to see who could hit harder. Alcaraz broke for 5-3, but in the next game he failed when he shouldn’t have and lost his serve again.

Alcaraz had another chance, with Djokovic serving 4-5 and 0-40. And he saw it happen again.

But two games later, in another 0-40 with the Serb serving, Alcaraz did not forgive: error of his rival and 7-5 for the Spaniard.

Set equal and Djokovic who goes to the locker room. Alcaraz, impatient, ends up waiting for him in the middle of the court. When the Serb enters, a section of the crowd boo him. Memories of the match he lost to Nadal a year ago.

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“I don’t mind”, said a smiling Djokovic after the match. “It’s not the first; probably not the last. I’ll just keep winning.”

“I wasn’t feeling well at all at the end of that set,” Djokovic admitted.

A while later, the unexpected: Alcaraz returned a forehand with fury and his leg got stuck. He was clearly suffering from cramps, he couldn’t stand up. Djokovic crossed the net to talk to him, the Spaniard was attended to in his chair, but that implied, by regulation, losing all the points until the next change of side: so it was that, without even playing the game, Djokovic broke Alcaraz’s serve and took a 2-1 lead.

The third set went with Alcaraz unable to move. He would go to the locker room for treatment, but nothing much changed. Since the injury, the Spaniard lost ten consecutive games until winning the game of honour in the sixth game of the fourth set.

“I saw I was suffering, but I tried to stay focused,” admitted the Serb.

Australian Nick Kyrgios, who followed the match on television, commented: “Feel for Alcaraz. Just a big learning process, pretty sure every tennis player goes through this feeling. Cramping due to nervous energy and the anxiety of playing a match with this magnitude. He will learn how to deal with this in the future for sure. Then we should be scared.”

At that end of the match there was nothing left for the Spaniard to do: Djokovic was through to the final and Alcaraz found a limit where he had not imagined it. The Serb, on the other hand, dreams of extending the limits of his career, break the tie in 22 that has the Spanish Rafael Nadal and become Sunday in Paris in the most winning tennis player of all time.

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