“Definitely one of the toughest matches I’ve ever played in my life, regardless what tournament, what category, what level, what player.
“It’s unbelievable, from the beginning to the end. We both been through so much, so many ups and downs, highs and lows, incredible points, poor games, heatstroke, coming back…
“These are kind of moments and matches I continue to work for, day in, day out. I was never in doubt that I could deliver the A game when it mattered the most and I’m just thrilled.”
So said Novak Djokovic after three hours and thirty-nine minutes on court in the final of Cincinnati’s Western and Southern Open. It had been the longest ATP best-of-three set final since 1990.
Against valiant competitor Carlos Alcaraz, he needed five championship points to claim his 39th Masters title, 5-7 7-6(7) 7-6(4).
To reach the final, Djokovic began the tournament with a one set win, 6-4, through Alejandro Davidovich Fokina’s retirement; followed by a 3 & 2 win over Gael Monfils who had knocked out 13th seed Cameron Norrie plus in-hot-form Alex De Minaur.
Djokovic then stormed over Taylor Fritz, the No. 1 US player and last American left in the draw, 6-0 6-4 in the quarters, before his tight semi against 2021 Cincinnati champion Alezander Zverev.
The 16th seeded German had done Djokovic the favour of knocking out 3rd seed Daniil Medvedev in the third round, 6-4 5-7 6-4. Medvedev had seemed to be cruising through the tournament but struggled with double faults in that match.
Top seed Alcaraz had a tougher time getting to the final. Every match was a close three-setter. Australian Jordan Thompson played well above his 55 ranking in keeping Alcaraz to a 7-5 4-6 6-3 win. The volleying from both players was remarkable.
Next up was American Tommy Paul in the round of 16. Paul knows how to play Alcaraz, having twice beaten him at the National Bank Open – in Montreal in 2022 and in Toronto seven days before this match.
The only Alcaraz win over Paul came at the Miami Open in March.
In Cincinatti, they contested a tense double tiebreak three setter. Paul broke in the first set to go 4-2 but lost the eventual tiebreak 6-8.
The second set ended with both players losing serve for six consecutive games, until Paul managed to survive a 15 minute nine-deuce game with three match points, and then prevented Alcaraz from winning a point in the tiebreak.
Alcaraz roused himself to break in the first game of the last set. Then rain fell to send the players back to the locker room for an hour.
They had resumed for a mere four points when rain forced another interruption. Upon their return, Alcaraz held, then broke again to lead 3-0.
Leading 5-3 and at match point, he stretched out fully to get the ball back to Paul, who netted his reply. In three hours, 10 minutes, Alcaraz beat his opponent, the wind and the rain, 7-6(6), 6-7(0), 6-3.
Another Australian, qualifier Max Purcell took on Alcaraz in the quarters. Having focused more on singles in 2023 and currently ranked 70, Purcell showed how well he can play the individual’s game, taking out world no. 7 Casper Ruud in the second round.
He followed that win with an easy victory over Stan Wawrinka, who had knocked out 10th seed Francis Tiafoe in straight sets.
Appearing in his first Masters 1000 quarter final, Purcell surprised Alcaraz with his serve-volley game at its finest. He captured the first set 6-4. Alcaraz gathered himself and raced out to 3-0 in the second set, maintaining the break to take it 6-3.
The third set was a roller coaster. Purcell was down 0-2, 0-40 and looked to be on his last legs, but somehow held, broke and held again to go 3-2 up. Soon he led 4-3 but Alcaraz won the next two games and Purcell couldn’t convert the break point that would have allowed him to level at 5-5. The set was over for 6-4.
Alcaraz got a scare in his semi as Hubert Hurkacz raced to a 6-2 5-4 lead. But Hurkacz hit out on his match point and Alcaraz was able to recover. In the tiebreak, he went down 1-4 and again came back, winning the next six points to take it to a decider.
Alcaraz continued on his way to 6-3, taking the third set from Hurkacz just as he had done in Toronto the previous week.
Cincinnatti was Djokovic’s first tournament since Wimbledon, where he had lost an incredible final to Alcaraz, 6-1 6-7(6) 1-6 6-3 4-6.
It would have been new tournament director Todd Martin’s dream to have the Cincinnati final feature the number 1 and 2 seeds. And that’s what happened.
For a while it looked like it might be a fizzer. Although Djokovic began well, breaking to love for 4-2, he found himself down a set and a break. He looked spent, perhaps as his previous matches were played in the cool of the evening, and this was a 91F afternoon.
But he willed himself back from 2-4 down in the second set and at 5-6 in the tiebreak saved championship point with a potent serve followed by a gutsy forehand. Great net play assisted Djokovic in his revival as did several sudden unforced errors from Alcaraz mid-set.
After 129 minutes of exertion in the heat, both players swathed themselves in ice towels in preparation for the ultimate set.
The final set encapsulated the tension and brilliance of the match.
Djokovic attacked any second serve that came his way and broke for 4-3, and stretched the lead to 5-3. Returning serve, he soon had two championships points.
But Alcaraz wasn’t giving up. The first he saved with a brilliant pass down line that curled to evade Djokovic at the net; the second with a forehand bullet.
Next game, another outrageous Alcaraz winner and the gift of a double fault thwarted the two further championship points that arrived on Djokovic’s serve. He became unnerved enough to drop serve.
A tiebreak was required to determine who’d be holding the Rookwood Cup aloft this year. Djokovic quickly took the lead and didn’t let go, clinching the fifth championship point for 7-4 and the tour’s only ceramic trophy..
As the runner-up wept in his chair, the champion roared and ripped his shirt in half.
Title photo by Scott Stuart and end photo by Leslie Billman