For two hours, Novak Djokovic’s showdown with Carlos Alcaraz lived up to its billing and more – but then the greatest champion of them all took over.
If you were to read the scripts that have been written for this year’s tourament at Roland Garros, Alcaraz was destined to blow all his opponents away and claim his first title in Paris.
Yet that narrative was written without giving full respect to the great Djokovic.
The cramps Alcaraz suffered may be the primary reason why the 20-year-old Spaniard only won two games in one-sided sets that pushed Djokovic to within one game of his record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam title.
Alcaraz initially appeared unable to move when the cramps struck, but eventually limped back to his seat and was forced to forfeit a service game in order to have treatment.
The crowd loudly jeered when they realised the game had been awarded to Djokovic but that was the least of Alcaraz’stroubles, with the Spaniard, who had been wowing Philippe Chatrier with his incredible movement and dynamism, reduced to little more than walking.
He opted not to retire but could offer little challenge to Djokovic thereafter and won only one more game, with the Serbian completing a 6-3 5-7 6-1 6-1 victory to move through to his seventh final on the Parisian clay.
Those cramps were induced by Djokovic’s brilliance, as he stayed in touch with his much younger opponent and eventually won the physical and mental battle to prevail.
The second set of this match was an epic set of games that will live long in the memory and while Alcaraz eventually came out on top, the energy he needed to put into that solitary set took too much out of him as the match was essentially decided as his physical levels dropped.
“Once you get cramps it’s pretty much over,” declared Eurosport expert and former British No 1 Tim Henman.
“It can be due to stress. The level of the match was so high for the first two sets, but it took a lot out of Alcaraz.
“It was only two hours and ten minutes after those first two sets, so to cramp after that amount of time, it has to be mental as much as physical.”
They were comments that highlighted how Djokovic has pushed Alcaraz to his absolute limits and broken him physically.
It highlighted why beating Djokovic over the best-of-five-set format in a Grand Slam is still one of the biggest challenges in any sport, even at the age of 36.
As ever, there was some controversy in the match, with Djokovic curiously booed as he tried to take the acclaim of the crowd at the end of the match.
Why boo a great champion when he is on the brink of becoming the greatest tennis player of all-time? Not for the first time, it made no sense.
Yet this is a question Djokovic has faced time and again over the course of his career and maybe he just has to accept the popularity battle is one he is destined to lose with some observers.
All that matters now is the reality that Djokovic is one game away from Grand Slam number 23 and an achievement that will almost certainly mean he finishes this era of tennis with the most major titles under his belt.
He will also be eyeing up another calendar Grand Slam clean sweep as he will be a big favourite for Wimbledon next month and by then,
This match could have been the day when Djokovic’s era of dominance came to an end and yet instead, it proved to be the moment when he confirmed his reign as the world’s best player still has time to run.
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