In Carlos Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic Has A Much-Needed Gift: A Rival

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What a gift Alcaraz is for tennis.

What a gift this still-new force is for Djokovic.

Now their pairing, the most electric in tennis, is widely expected to be the thrill of this year’s U.S. Open. Alcaraz, the world’s top-ranked male player, will defend his U.S. Open championship, which he won in 2022’s Djokovic-less field.

Watching Alcaraz, a supreme talent at just 20, play in person is like seeing a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Maserati burst down the freeway, leaving every other make and model in its wake. You realize you’ve never seen something on the road so sleek, nimble, powerful or suited to its task.

It is often a turning point in professional tennis when a gifted young talent ascends to stardom in such quick fashion. In the men’s game, to cite just two instances, think of 18-year-old Bjorn Borg helping open the curtain for the 1970s tennis boom by winning the French Open in 1974. Flash forward to 19-year-old Pete Sampras heralding a new era by winning the U.S. Open in 1990.

Alcaraz’s emergence presents new possibilities.

But even with a million miles on his legs and a right arm prone to injury, Djokovic, 36, is embracing the challenge of fending him off. He has described Alcaraz as something entirely novel: a mixture of Nadal’s bullish determination, Federer’s grace and the Serb’s canny guile. “I haven’t played a player like him,” Djokovic said of Alcaraz, in glowing and astonished terms.

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At the Western & Southern Open finals two weeks ago in the Cincinnati area, Djokovic often appeared ready to buckle in the center-court sauna that was the championship match.

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