Passing of the Torch? An Analysis of the Djokovic vs Alcaraz Madrid Semifinal

Novak Djokovic in action at the ATP Belgrade Open.
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The kid is serious. No one is on fire as Carlos Alcaraz is on fire. He has stormed the top 10 this year, won his first Masters, and now has knocked off the king of clay, to win a bid with the top player in the world. A victory over Novak Djokovic would firmly plant Alcaraz as the Next Big Thing and the presumed heir to the Big 3, if not give him outright credence for being the current best player in the world. But Djokovic is looking sharp, after a few matches of looking shaky, and each player will have to bring top strategy and execute his shots on point to have a chance to move past the other for an appearance in the finals.

Novak Djokovic vs Carlos Alcaraz

Young Nadal?

Alcaraz has rightly been compared to a young Nadal, and he wins with a similar combination of power, movement, and intelligence. Nadal is a bit bigger than his young counterpart, and has always had the lefty advantage, while Alcaraz makes better use of the drop shot to augment his big-hitting baseline game. But the keys to beating each of the two Spaniards are not too different, and generally involve avoiding the forehand, playing exceptional defense, and beating them at small ball when possible. Djokovic is capable of these things, of course, or he wouldn’t be where he stands.

Djokovic, on the other hand, is currently most vulnerable in his endurance. He gets a leg up in that department for the semis, having moved past Hubert Hurkacz in two sets, and having had a walkover the previous day. He should be fresh, but the question of where his endurance tops out is still on the table. Alcaraz’s best bet is likely a long-rally, three-set match. Djokovic has fallen apart completely in two third sets recently.

Small Ball

One of the keys to beating Nadal that pertains also to Alcaraz is to control the net. Grass is ideal for this, but well-placed drop shots (especially Djokovic’s world-best fake backhand drop shot) will force the baseliner to play his secondary skillset at the net. (The classic example of this was Dustin Brown vs Nadal at Wimbledon.) It not only wins points, but it disrupts rhythm and frustrates the opponent. It can disrupt the opponent even if he wins a significant number of the net points, as he wants to stay in rhythm in the back of the court, and is constantly on guard from the break in rhythm posed by the small ball plays. Djokovic has this capability, but unfortunately has been missing a fair number of his drop shots recently. A sharp performance in this regard could give him an advantage.

Convert Break Points

Alcaraz’s key to success against Nadal was his excellence on break points, winning 10/14. Such poise under pressure from a very young man is exceptional, but Djokovic has made poise under pressure an art form over his career. (Not that Nadal hasn’t…) Nadal could have won that match with a few more break point conversions, and success under pressure may determine the outcome of the present match. Despite Alcaraz’s recent success, the edge here has to go to Djokovic; he has been doing it for 15 years, and in the most strenuous of moments. One would have said the same for Nadal, but…does lightning strike twice?

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Pressure the Second Serve

Djokovic dominated Hurkacz on the latter’s second serve, winning 63% of the points. It’s not news that Djokovic is the best returner in the game, and he will surely look to take advantage of Alcaraz’s second serve. The young Spaniard won less of his second serve points than Nadal did on his own second serve, and Nadal’s serve isn’t a major weapon. Alcaraz’s win percentage was even lower against Cam Norrie (44%). I would be surprised to see Djokovic not try to take advantage of his opponent’s second serve. Meanwhile, the world #1 won 68% of his own second serves against Hurkacz. Big forehands often have trouble with slow and spinny serves like Djokovic’s.

History favors Djokovic in this matchup, but momentum favors Alcaraz. How polished is Djokovic after all the action he’s had to miss? How much did Nadal’s layoff affect his performance in the loss? (He struggled against a questionable David Goffin, and hit numerous uncharacteristic errors off easy balls.) I have little concern about Alcaraz as far as being able to handle the moment; he is demonstrating enormous maturity. If he becomes the next member of the Big 3, this tournament might be the one that’s remembered, if he can power past two of the club’s current members in consecutive days. But will he?

I have no idea. But it should be a thrilling match.

Main Photo from Getty.