“Alcaraz is the favorite”: Djokovic appeals to a tactic older than tennis

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PARIS – Novak Djokovic knows too many things. He knows, for example, that a couple of properly calibrated sentences can have an impact on an opponent’s morale. He knows that taking advantage of the press conference before the start of the French Open to declare Carlos Alcaraz favorite for the title is anything but innocent.

It is, and he knows it too, a tactic that is older than tennis.

Why does he define the Spaniard as favorite? “Because he’s the world number one and he’s the one who won the big titles on clay. Beyond the fact that he has one Grand Slam and I have 22, let’s look at the last few months, the form he showed and the form I showed. He is the slight favourite”.

Everything is meticulous and calculated in the Djokovic universe. Alcaraz is the favourite, albeit a slight one. Even though the Spaniard has only one Grand Slam title and he has 22.

Carlos Alcaraz is the favorite

“It’s true that the Grand Slams are different from the rest of the tournaments and that experience is on my side, but… what role that will play in an eventual match with him, I don’t know. I think he’s the number one favourite”.

In short, Djokovic said a lot, but at the same time he avoided the other side of the coin: isn’t he the favourite, a 36-year-old against a 20-year-old, a two-time Roland Garros champion who has a great chance to be a three-time champion now that Rafael Nadal, the absolute master of Paris, is gone?

And the answer is clear, the answer is yes. Djokovic has, over the 15 days of the tournament between 28 May and 11 June 2023, the great opportunity to seek a Grand Slam title without the threat of his toughest rival, Nadal. If he succeeds, he will own 23 Grand Slam titles and will have two more chances during the year, while Nadal grieves with his injuries and the soul-searching question: are his days as a professional tennis player over?

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With so much pressure on him, Djokovic does well to try to get rid of some of it and transfer it to Alcaraz, who had a good season on clay: champion in Barcelona and Madrid, with twelve wins and one loss on the European orange courts. The loss to Hungarian Fabian Marozsan in his second match in Rome was almost a blessing, beyond the surprise of losing to the 135th in the world: the Spaniard had time to rest, train and regenerate in the face of his great goal, that of being champion in Paris.

“Roland Garros is a very clear objective for him”, said Juan Carlos Ferrero, Alcaraz’s coach, in an interview with CLAY a few weeks ago.

In his share of praise, Ferrero was also caught up with Djokovic on a Saturday of spring sunshine and mild heat in Paris.

“It was a fantastic decision for Alcaraz to be since he was 14, 15 years old with someone like Ferrero. It’s a decision that’s working out very well.”

Djokovic, who comes into Roland Garros on a poor run of just five matches won and three lost on clay, was prompted by the press to recall painful moments, those matches he lost and really should have won. The Serb was quick to find the silver lining, though.

“There were big matches in my career that I lost, I wish I had handled it differently, but I also won many where I was supposed to lose, the final to Federer at Wimbledon 2019, for example. Statistically he had outplayed me in every aspect, I hadn’t broken his serve once, and yet I won. Or the 2012 Australian Open final that I beat Rafa”.

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The two examples cited by the world number three point to two of the greatest matches of all time. Another subtlety for Alcaraz to take note of.

Djokovic doesn’t plan to give anything away: “You can’t think about the energy you expend in the early rounds and how it will affect the later rounds. You can’t. You want to go in fourth or fifth gear from the start and spend the least amount of energy. I want to show what I’m capable of and keep going.”

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