Novak Djokovic advances to French Open final after Carlos Alcaraz cramps up

PARIS — A starry French Open men’s semifinal of otherworldly caliber crumbled so utterly halfway through on Friday that it wound up as a forum on one of the dreariest subjects in all humanity: cramping. The topics included how people cramp, why people cramp and whether Novak Djokovic’s ample smorgasbord of tennis talents includes the capacity to make other people cramp.

That’s what seemed to happen in the buzziest match of this French Open and this tennis year, when cramps struck early in the third set all around the 20-year-old body of No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, the dazzling fresh superman of tennis. That’s how two opening sets of furious exchanges, fabulous chases and foxy drop shots yielded to two closing sets of staccato points, muted sounds and groaning spectators.

The score told the tale of the cramps — 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 — but then ushered in something else: the idea that Djokovic of Serbia will seek a record 23rd men’s Grand Slam singles tournament title on Sunday against Casper Ruud of Norway, a finalist in three of the last five majors after his 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 rush through Alexander Zverev in the second semifinal. The final will tell, among other things, if the very weight of Djokovic’s 22 Grand Slam titles might have wound up helping facilitate his 23rd.

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Asked what caused the cramps, Alcaraz said, “Yeah, the tension.” Asked what brought the tension, the reigning U.S. Open champion said, “I have never felt something like I did today. You know, I have never felt that tension like I did in this match.” Asked if the presence of Djokovic across the net exacerbated that tension, Alcaraz said, “Probably. Probably. Is not easy to play against Novak, you know. Of course, a legend of our sport. If someone says that he gets into the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies. Of course, playing a semifinal of a Grand Slam, you have a lot of nerves, but even more with, you know, facing Novak. That’s the truth.”

After all, Alcaraz had won a U.S. Open already at 19 by playing 19 out of the maximum 20 sets in the closing four rounds, winning 6-3 in the fifth against Marin Cilic, 6-3 in the fifth in the wee hours against Jannik Sinner, 6-3 in the fifth against Frances Tiafoe, and 6-3 in the fourth against Ruud. He had cramped before, including in the 2021 U.S. Open third round against Stefanos Tsitsipas (a tiebreaker win in the fifth). “I got cramps,” Alcaraz said, “but not this magnitude.” And so: “I disappointed myself, honestly.” And so: “I will try not to happen again, you know, in these matches.”

“I feel for him,” Djokovic said on court afterward. “I feel sorry.” He spent the post-match hug telling Alcaraz he’ll win multiple times here, and he raved about Alcaraz in his news conference, noticing “so much maturity in the last couple of years” and calling this cramping bit “part of a learning curve.” Asked if he ever felt such cramping for such reasons long before he reached his current age of 36, Djokovic said, “I have.”

He did not specify when, it seems his long path has gone from cramping partly because of other people to becoming part of the reason other people cramp, to a day when having a 36-year-old body beat having a 20-year-old body. It began with two players coming out to the court to roaring ovations, with bouncing Serbia flags and then bouncing Spain flags, on another impressionist painting of a day at Roland Garros. It continued with two sets from some daydream, as two players with all the shots in the book produced points with seemingly all the possible geometry, points that punished the tiniest sin.

Djokovic had won one set with picturesque points, keen strategy, near-celestial mastery and some of the better tennis anyone ever saw, and had lost the second after getting broken at 4-3, breaking back for 5-4, fending off three set points for 5-5 and getting broken weakly at 6-5, with errors rearing their heads.

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Through two sets, Alcaraz had won 72 points, Djokovic 71.

Untold goose bumps loomed ahead.

Just before it all went from compelling to deflating, Djokovic himself had exited the court for a clothes change and a bathroom break after the first two taxing sets that looked just a little bit like wrestling. Then, just shy of two-and-a-half hours into the match, with Djokovic looking to even the third set at 1-1, he served at 40-30, faulted long, and shipped an 88-mph second serve toward Alcaraz. Alcaraz hopped sort of awkwardly and thudded the ball more awkwardly into the left net pole to clinch the game for Djokovic. But after Alcaraz came down to red-clay earth, this wonder who had wowed the crowd with his futuristic speed hobbled even to walk, with his left leg straightened in that lousy cramping mode.

He had felt manageable cramps in the first two sets but, he said, “At the beginning of the third set, I started to cramp every part of my body, not only the legs — the arms, as well, every part of the legs.”

As Alcaraz stood and limped and wobbled for a while around the doubles lane to the left of where he had played the previous game, the opponent almost twice his age walked across to check on him. They stood together momentarily until Alcaraz sat down. Once he sat down and got treatment rather than serving the next game at a juncture of the set with an even number of games played, thus no changeover, he forfeited a game by rule.

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Ignorant to the rule, the crowd booed the score change to 2-1, and the chair umpire struggled at length to command the audience to hush.

The rest of the match looked like some other match. Alcaraz still could blast his groundstrokes if the ball came near him, but he lost the capacity to chase, and Alcaraz without his chase isn’t Alcaraz. A joyous player capable of getting to balls that look unassailable — almost an optical illusion sometimes, as on one wild second-set point both Djokovic and the audience applauded — now watched winners go by. All Djokovic had to do was master the slightly tricky art of playing against somebody physically diminished. The stats shifted.

The set lengths went from 59 minutes and 77 minutes to 36 minutes and 31 minutes. The number of rallies with nine shots or more dropped from 25 in the first two sets to four in the last two (zero in the fourth), and the number of rallies between five and eight shots went from 46 to 21. The points tilted to Djokovic, 57-28 in the last two sets, and now a possible third French Open title had begun to tilt toward Djokovic as well, with the chance to inch ahead of Rafael Nadal by 23-22, even as he said, “Experience on my side, but does it win matches? I don’t think so.”

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said, “that most of the matches in tournaments I’ve played in the last few years, there is history on the line. I like the feeling. It’s a privilege. It’s incredible privilege to be able to make history in the sport that I truly love, and it has given me so much. The motivation is very high, as you can imagine.”

He long since has learned how to manage that motivation, just another of the factors that can matter.

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