World No 1 Carlos Alcaraz produced the shot of the French Open – and maybe the decade – as he pulled off a swivelling scoop with his back to the net to pass the advancing Novak Djokovic.
At just 20, Alcaraz is already known for his astonishing shot-making creativity, but also for his vulnerability to injury. If he manages to stay fit throughout a long career, he will create a highlight reel like no other player in the history of the game.
This was a variation on the traditional “hot dog”, which is normally hit between your legs with your back to the net as you run back after being lobbed.
Alcaraz took a different route by running alongside the ball, after Djokovic had first drop-shotted him and then chipped the next stroke deftly over his head.
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Then he swivelled while in a full slide and sent his scooped forehand skidding up the line on Djokovic’s forehand side. He was still off balance as he turned to watch the ball land just inside the court, and barely managed to avoid falling over backwards as he shook his fist in delight.
Had that ball been hit from a normal stance, while facing the net, a tennishead would have called the result an inside-in forehand winner. And that’s hard enough to do without travelling at huge speed in the wrong direction, with uncertain footing, while completely unsighted.
One of Alcaraz’s unique characteristics is his ability to shape the ball playfully, even when the stakes – as in this French Open semi-final – are enormous. He also has phenomenal touch – his drop shot is probably the best on the tour – and unrivalled speed off the ground.
He had literally been in the tramlines at the front of the court after Djokovic’s drop shot, but was still able to sprint diagonally in order to catch up with Djokovic’s lob – a clean winner against almost any player.
To his credit, Djokovic recognised the specialness of the moment. He grinned, applauded, and then encouraged the crowd to revel in Alcaraz’s creativity.
Despite defeat Carlos Alcaraz illustrates why he is the natural heir to the Big Three
By Simon Briggs, at Roland Garros
Carlos Alcaraz demonstrated why he is the natural heir to tennis’s Big Three as he produced one of the greatest moments of improvisation ever seen at the French Open, scooping a forehand pass for a clean winner with his back to the net.
And yet, despite this unforgettable trick shot – which is sure to be talked about for years – Alcaraz still cut a dejected figure as he left the stage after his semi-final against Novak Djokovic. It wasn’t just that he had been beaten, by a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 scoreline. It was that he had suffered a match-turning attack of cramp.
Alcaraz’s indisposition took all the vibrancy out of a previously gripping contest. While he was moving at full tilt, this match was played at an intensity to recall the great trivalry – Djokovic/Federer/Nadal – of the last decade. Had Alcaraz been able to maintain the same level of effort for another hour or two, we would have been looking at a modern classic.
As it was, his calf locked up during the third game of the third set, crippling him to the point where he could barely move. And yet he still exited to the acclaim of his opponent. “I told him at the net,” said Djokovic, “he is young, he has plenty of time left to him, he will win this tournament many times.”
Meanwhile, on social media, other major tennis figures were saluting Alcaraz’s talent. “Feel for Alcaraz,” said last year’s Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios. “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.”
At 20, Alcaraz is hardly newo the tennis cognoscenti. He won last year’s US Open, after all. Yet there was a sense in New York that he was exploiting the absence of Federer (retired), Nadal (injured in the fourth round) and Djokovic (uninvited because of his rejection of the Covid vaccine).
Even if Alcaraz came into this event ranked at No1 in the world, he still needed to prove his credentials against one of the giants of the previous generation. If his technique and creativity stood up brilliantly to the examination, his inexperience shone through. He is not the first. Djokovic himself had suffered multiple physical issues in the early stages of his career, while Andy Murray famously cramped up during a five-set tussle at his first Wimbledon.
From the very first point – a forehand that he slapped into the net-tape – Alcaraz looked as if he was feeling the pressure of the occasion. Later, he was surprisingly direct and honest about his own internal angst.
“I have never felt that tension that I did in that match,” he said. “Is not easy to play against Novak, you know. If someone says that he get into the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies. Next time that I’m gonna face Novak, I hope to be different, but the nerves will be there.”
Alcaraz still produced many magnificent points – and he won the hearts of the crowd to the extent that they booed Djokovic heartily once the contest was over. But with the exception of his magical drop-shots, it felt like he was forcing his way through the match, like a muscle truck trying to keep up with a low-slung race-car, and running out of fuel along the way.
Djokovic was contrastingly efficient and street-smart, constantly changing the direction of play so that Alcaraz always seemed to be scrambling to keep points alive. The project worked so successfully that Djokovic will now start as the overwhelming favourite to win Sunday’s final – and claim a record-breaking 23rd major title.
Even in defeat, though, it was Alcaraz who won the popular vote on Court Philippe Chatrier. He may one day look back on this semi-final as a crucial moment in his evolution.