ROLAND GARROS — So good they support your opponent out of sympathy. They cheer against themselves that they might have more sport to watch. That is surely one sign of true sporting greatness. And Carlos Alcaraz may have already reached it.
It happened within 40 minutes on Wednesday night, when Stefanos Tsitsipas dinked a delicate lob over the Spaniard’s head. Alcaraz was already 40-15 up in the game, and a set and a break to the good, but the Greek looked like he might have a toehold in the match.
He lost the next point and the crowd applauded and cheered their man, but were simultaneously disappointed that he was likely to produce such a quick kill. But Alcaraz rarely plays with his food.
Tournament director Amelie Mauresmo said last year she had avoided putting women’s ties in “Match of the Day” night slot because she was worried a one-sided match wouldn’t last long.
If that really is her reasoning, she might have to stop putting Alcaraz in there too. This was a world No 5 and former French Open finalist at the other end and he was making it look like a charity hit with a competition winner.
It is why Friday’s showdown with Novak Djokovic, first pencilled in two weeks ago when the draw came out and now filled in with pen, matters so much. Both men are the present of tennis, of course, but Alcaraz represents the future while Djokovic represents the past. Alcaraz has never played Federer, Djokovic arguably helped knock him off his perch. Alcaraz has known virtually only victory and precious little defeat, Djokovic knows those two well-known imposters enough for a lifetime. Djokovic and Alcaraz have only played each other once before but it is crucial that the torch is eventually passed, and the flame will take a few more meetings to catch.
Tsitsipas looked helpless against the torrent of winners that flowed over the net – 13 of them in the first set and only four unforced errors – and as he sat on his bench after just 30 minutes and contemplated how he was already a set down, he must also have considered how it had come to this. It is only four years since he was an exciting 20-year-old in a grand slam quarter-final, his first coming in Australia before the pandemic. He won too, but was smashed by Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals.
Four years later, he feels no closer to a grand slam title than he did then. Nadal is gone, or as good as, and he has been replaced by another who has already overtaken Tsitsipas in the pecking order.
Age is of course just a number, as Djokovic keeps proving, but the plateau in Tsitsipas’s progress must be alarming. He still has his father Apostolos as his main coach, buoyed presumably by the extended trial which now means his constant coaching from the stands is no longer against the rules. He briefly had Mark Philippoussis providing the advice and experience of a two-time grand slam finalist but they split last month and it is father and son once again. When Tsitsipas hit his fifth double-fault of the match, to drop serve for the fifth time in the match and lose the second set, Apostolos said nothing. There wasn’t much to say.
His son hasn’t beaten a top-five player at a grand slam for two years, and even that was Daniil Medvedev on his most despised surface, clay. Tsitsipas’s comeback from two sets down to beat Nadal in 2021 was supposed to be a watershed moment. It is starting to look like an anomaly.
It was only when Alcaraz served for the match at 5-3 in the third that Tsitsipas showed any fight, and the top seed maybe a few nerves. The Greek broke back, and then forced a tie-break, but there wasn’t much left, and two more errors left him trailing 4-1. It took Alcaraz six match points to get over the line, but the result was never in doubt. Some would have said that long before it started.