From the upper seats in the main stadium at the Western & Southern Open, one can gaze across Interstate 71 and catch a glimpse of the King’s Island amusement park. Throughout the day, roller coasters gradually ascend to towering heights before plunging wildly back to the ground.
However, by Sunday evening, the park lay still and shut. The real thrill ride was unfolding on the opposite side of the highway, where Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz were nearing the conclusion of their intense and emotionally charged two-man, three-hour-and-49-minute contest on a scorching 90-degree afternoon. The Serbian and the Spaniard had taken the 11,000 spectators encircling the center court on a whirlwind journey full of shifts in momentum and a roller-coaster of physical and emotional highs and lows.
A multitude of fans resonated with resounding chants of “No-lay!” in support of the legendary Djokovic, marking his first appearance at this venue since 2019 and receiving a warm welcome back to the United States. Simultaneously, thousands of others countered with spirited chants of “Vamos Carlos!” in honor of the electrifying new sensation, Alcaraz, who had openly expressed his affection for Cincinnati and its fans throughout the week.
As the two players entered a third-set tiebreaker, well past 8:00 P.M., the chants melded into an immense, tumultuous, and unintelligible roar. It was a fitting representation of the moment, for at that point, the match transcended individual players. It became a clash between the world’s two finest athletes, an incredible display of skill and resilience. Regardless of one’s allegiance, it was an opportunity to relish the moment and savor the privilege of witnessing it.
In reflection, Djokovic, awestruck by the ordeal he had just endured, remarked, “Ups and downs, exhilarating highs and disheartening lows, remarkable points, lackluster games, and the sweltering heat. It was one of the most challenging and enthralling matches I’ve ever been a part of, regardless of level or opponent.”
During the initial 90 minutes, the match seemed far from a classic in the making; it appeared more likely to be a disappointment. The scorching heat took an early toll on the 36-year-old Djokovic, as he relinquished a 4-2 lead in the first set and retreated for an extended bathroom break after losing it 7-5.
The time spent in the locker room didn’t do him much good. In the second set, he sank heavily into his chair during a changeover, wrapped an ice-cold towel around his head, and accepted a medication from the tour’s medical staff. Instead of a rematch of their Wimbledon epic, this contest appeared to be a reversal of their Roland Garros semifinal. In Paris, Alcaraz had suffered cramps, leading to an anticlimactic conclusion. In Cincinnati, it seemed as though Djokovic’s body might be on the verge of giving in.
With Djokovic serving at 2-4 in the second set, Alcaraz executed a perfectly placed topspin lob for a winner, hinting at the possibility of securing a second break and ending the match. However, Djokovic, the craftiest of veterans, relied on his remaining strength—his serve—to secure a hold. This proved sufficient to keep him within striking distance on the scoreboard and, as it turned out, to rattle Alcaraz’s nerves. At 4-3, Alcaraz opened the door with four erratic unforced errors, and Djokovic found a new lease on life.
Subsequently, the match began to intensify. The rallies extended, and Djokovic rekindled his fighting spirit. With renewed vigor, he held at love to level the score at 5-5. Alcaraz, overcoming his earlier jitters, held his serve with a winning volley to force a tiebreaker. Djokovic surged ahead with a 3-0 lead in the tiebreaker, only to have Alcaraz counter by winning the following four points.
Alcaraz found himself at match point with the score at 6-5, but Djokovic thwarted his attempt with a powerful serve and forehand. It wasn’t until the score reached 8-7 that Djokovic had his second set point. In a prolonged and grueling rally, the tension in the stadium mounted with each exchange, culminating when Alcaraz sent a forehand rocket into the net. The stadium erupted in jubilation.
The third set witnessed the match reaching its peak intensity. Alcaraz forced Djokovic on the defensive with blistering forehands and tested him with drop shots, causing Djokovic to retreat further behind the baseline, all while executing his signature ground strokes from corner to corner. Both players skillfully varied their first serves with flat and kick serves, often surprising their opponents by following them to the net. They seamlessly transitioned between all-out power and delicate finesse.
At 3-3, Djokovic managed to break Alcaraz’s serve after a protracted game, finally succeeding on his fifth break point. With the score at 5-3, Djokovic had two match points, but this time, it was Alcaraz’s turn to defy the odds and stay alive. On Djokovic’s second match point, he ventured forward and attempted a volley that seemed poised to secure him the title. However, Alcaraz made a spectacular save, reaching the ball in time to execute a perfect passing shot into the corner, leaving the crowd in awe and causing the stadium to erupt in celebration for him.
One game later, with the score at 5-4 and Djokovic serving, he encountered yet another match point – his fourth at this juncture. Alcaraz, once again, delivered an astonishing forehand winner that left spectators in awe and ignited a burst of excitement. This incredible shot also paved the way for him to break Djokovic’s serve.
If any final warranted a third-set tiebreaker, it was undeniably this one. Once more, Djokovic sprinted to a 3-0 lead, but he couldn’t shake off Alcaraz, who leveled the score at 3-3 with a beautifully executed drop volley.
Then, at 4-4, after more than three and a half hours and a total of 260 points played, they arrived at the pivotal moment that essentially decided the outcome. Alcaraz unleashed a blistering 130-mph serve, met with precision by Djokovic’s two-handed backhand, which he returned almost as forcefully. With that shot, the momentum shifted decisively in Djokovic’s favor for one final time. Djokovic clinched that point and the following two to secure a 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) triumph.
When the match concluded, Djokovic lay on his back, seemingly in disbelief at his hard-fought victory. Meanwhile, Alcaraz stood gazing at the court beneath him, grappling with the disbelief of his loss. A minute later, on the sidelines, Djokovic drenched his head with water, while Alcaraz fought back tears.
Djokovic drew a comparison between facing Alcaraz and competing against a compatriot.
“The sensation I experience on the court brings to mind the times when I used to compete against Nadal during the prime of our careers,” Djokovic remarked. After the match, he tore off his shirt, much like he did in the 2012 Australian Open final against Rafa, another marathon match.
“In such battles, every point is a strenuous effort. Every point is a fierce contest. It feels like you won’t receive even five easy points throughout the entire match. You must earn each point and every shot, regardless of the playing conditions,” Djokovic added.
On the other hand, Alcaraz acknowledged that he still has much to learn from Djokovic, possibly an area where he can make improvements. While he was ahead by a set and a break, he did give Djokovic a series of free points that allowed his opponent to make a comeback.
Despite the emotional moment on the court, Alcaraz expressed his satisfaction at being a part of another unforgettable encounter with Djokovic.
“I’m genuinely proud of myself,” Alcaraz stated. “I was speaking, and I don’t know why I was in tears because I fought until the last ball. I came very close to defeating one of the greatest players in our sport. It may sound crazy right now, but I left the court feeling genuinely happy with what I accomplished.”
Who needs an amusement park when you have tennis matches like this?
“In conclusion,” Djokovic summarized, “it’s been an incredibly intense match we went through today, a real roller coaster.”