Djokovic captures third Western & Southern title in instant classic over Alcaraz
By Nick McCarvel
Where do we start when the men’s final is not only the longest match in Western & Southern Open history and longest Masters 1000 championship match of all time, but also arguably one of the best three-set matches in men’s history?
For now, we’ll start at the end: With Novak Djokovic winning his third Cincinnati title in three hours and 49 minutes, saving a championship point along the way to beat Carlos Alcaraz in an instant classic and battle of generations, 5-7, 7-6(7), 7-6(4).
“It’s one of the hardest matches I’ve ever played in my life,” Djokovic said after claiming the title, the 95th of his illustrious career and 39th Masters 1000. “It’s one of the toughest and most exciting matches that I’ve ever been a part of. These are the kinds of moments and matches that I want to be playing for.”
There is no hyperbole in Djokovic’s statements, in particular because the Serbian looked down and out midway through a blistering sunny Sunday afternoon, trailing Alcaraz by a set and a break at 2-4 in the second set.
They were doing battle for a fourth time, the world No.1 vs. 2 clash the 119th of all time.
But Alcaraz would play a loose game at 4-2 to crack the door open. Little did the fans – or two players on court – know that it was only the beginning.
“This rivalry just gets better and better,” Djokovic said after leveling their head-to-head 2-2. Later he’d tell reporters it felt akin to his famous 2012 Australian Open final win over Rafael Nadal, which lasted just shy of six hours.
Having saved a single match point at 5-6 in the second set breaker, Djokovic claimed the second set five points later, and looked prime to claim the dramatic affair when he broke midway through the deciding set, holding a pair of match points at 3-5 on Alcaraz’s serve, then another two on his own the following game.
That second match point at 3-5 was saved by the most unlikely of points from Alcaraz, who scrambled side to side on the court (seemingly from Columbus to Cleveland and back) to come up with a whipping forehand pass to stay alive in the match.
Minutes later, however, it was indeed Djokovic who would prevail, the match clock just 10 minutes shy of four hours of play. Alcaraz blasted a forehand return wide and Djokovic dropped to his back on the baseline, his arms raised above his head.
Finally, the chance for a rest.
“I tried to do my best,” an emotional Alcaraz told the crowd after his loss before turning to address Djokovic: “It’s amazing to share the court with you, learn from you. I learn so much from champions like you; congratulations to you and your team.”
Djokovic had words for Alcaraz too.
“A lot of the players don’t manage to reach those heights in their career what you’ve done the last two or three years,” he said, breaking into a smile. “Boy, you never give up man… I love that about you, but sometimes I wish you played [easier].”
It was a light moment between the two warriors before Djokovic claimed only what he can: “It did feel like a Grand Slam final.”
“This is why I’m pushing myself day in and day out, for moments like this in front of you guys.”
All week the Cincinnati crowd had been behind the respective champions, but on this day the crowd roared in a 50-50 split, with chants of “NO-LE!” and “CAR-LOS!” ringing out throughout the four hours. Djokovic called the support from the week “amazing:” “They welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “It was a perfect match.”
Alcaraz, who lost a Masters 1000 final for the first time, agreed.
“Cincinnati, I just can say thank you for all the support,” he said in his address to the crowd, still fighting back tears. “Since day one it’s been amazing to play in front of you. They say Cincinnati loves me, but I love Cincinnati. I’ll be back next year, stronger.”
It’s been 20 years since the men’s final had gone to a third-set breaker in Cincy, when Andy Roddick defeated Mardy Fish in 2003.
It’s a 1,069th career win for Djokovic, who passes both Nadal and Ivan Lendl for third most wins in the Open Era.
He also becomes the oldest champion here – ever.
“So much to say, so little energy to say it,” Djokovic joked after the match.
But then he said what the 11,000 fans – and many more watching from home – felt, too: “I don’t think I’ve played many matches like this in my career.”
“[This rivalry] is a challenge that we both need to embrace and accept if we want to win big titles.”
This day belonged to Djokovic. Aren’t you happy he, too, forged ahead?