The blockbuster match of the 2023 French Open was billed as youth versus experience: The youth of 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz against the experience of 36-year-old Novak Djokovic. That was a tidy shorthand, but that is precisely what happened.
For two enthralling hours, this was the titanic clash between tennis’ next big thing and tennis’ stalwart. And then youth and experience came to bear. Alcaraz began cramping and the blockbuster match ended with a fizzle, as Djokovic won 6–3,5–7,6–1,6–1, to move into the men’s final.
Though Alcaraz had beaten Djovokic the previous time they played, that was a best-of-three-set match in Madrid. One of tennis’ great differentiators is the best-of-five format. Djokovic playing in his 394th major singles match was much more adept at managing the situation and his body. Alcaraz in his 37th made some spectacular shots but early in the third set began cramping and couldn’t overcome this physical letdown.
It’s unfortunate that the sport does not have medical timeouts for cramping. It’s not good optics. But again, this is a sport of conditioning, especially as tennis gets more and more physical. Most players will say, “Hey, I put in the work [in terms of conditioning].”
Look, accidents happen and there should be medical timeouts with a wide berth, but cramps like what Alcaraz had in Friday’s match are about conditioning. And if a player has superior conditioning, that should matter, just like a player isn’t able to take more time in between points if a player is huffing and puffing.
We also need to pause and look at Djokovic. He takes his body and how he trains very seriously. Everyone joked about the “Iron Man” patch on his chest, but he really knows his body and seriously monitors these levels for himself and that is part of being an elite athlete these days. But another part of this is knowing how to ration your energy—how to take points off, how to shorten points. These players, like Djokovic who have been playing 15 years know this.
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— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) June 9, 2023
The good news for Alcaraz is that these are all solvable problems. Given the similarity between what he experienced today and what he went through at the Miami Open, he’ll go through a battery of tests and comprehensive level testing to figure out about the hydration and other things he might need to do to adjust his preparations.
Let's acknowledge that these cramps didn't come on by themselves—it was Djokovic’s relentless defense and reputation as well that played a proximate role. By winning this match, Djokovic reaches his 34th Grand Slam final in 70 career majors—a batting average of almost 500, which is absurd. He is also of course three sets away from winning his 23rd career major, which would separate him from Rafael Nadal and put him atop the heap.
Given his performance Friday, his superior fitness and the way he managed the best-of-five matches, Djokovic is now three sets away from overtaking Rafael Nadal and there is no sense he is slowing down.
One should figure Slam No. 23 is just a number on the way to a bigger total.