Novak Djokovic Returns to New York With a New Rival in His Sights

Serbia's Novak Djokovic, left, and Spain's Carlos Alcaraz. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File) (AP)
Serbia's Novak Djokovic, left, and Spain's Carlos Alcaraz. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File) (AP)


  • After a career spent chasing Federer and Nadal, the 23-time major champion is settling into an explosive rivalry with Carlos Alcaraz

Novak Djokovic has spent nearly his entire professional career chasing the twin targets of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. By the time he won his first Grand Slam tournament, in 2008, the other two had 15 major titles between them.

Fifteen years later, those twin monuments to sporting greatness are all but gone. Federer retired last year and Nadal is recovering from injury in the hopes of making next season his swan song. For the first time in his tennis life, Djokovic is by himself at the pinnacle of the game.

Or at least he was. Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old tennis prodigy from Spain, has given Djokovic a new rival to concentrate on wherever he goes. Just as Federer and Nadal seemed ever-present to him, Djokovic can be sure that for the rest of his career, the road to more trophies will usually go through Alcaraz.

“Carlos is No. 1 in the world," Djokovic said. “Sure, there’s always an eye that follows him from my team."

The men’s singles draw couldn’t have made the objective any clearer. If all goes according to plan, Djokovic and Alcaraz would meet for the fourth time in three months.

Their first Grand Slam encounter came in Paris, at a Roland-Garros semifinal in June, where fans were robbed of a potential epic as muscular cramping prevented Alcaraz from playing his best. The Spaniard had no such physical issues at Wimbledon in July, where he outlasted Djokovic in a grueling 4-hour, 42-minute final, a feat akin to beating a kangaroo in a hopping contest. Most recently, the two men met again this month in the final of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where Djokovic prevailed as the best-of-three match went the distance.

“He’s always pushing me to the limit," Djokovic said. “I think I do to him pretty much the same thing."

Far from being a thorn in his side, Alcaraz serves a useful purpose for a player like Djokovic, who thrives on high-level rivalries. As he chases a 24th major title, Djokovic has both an unparalleled ability to tailor his game to face his best opponents and the control to raise his level when he needs it most. It’s no coincidence that over the course of his career, Djokovic narrowly owns the head-to-heads against Federer and Nadal.

“It is key that you know yourself, what makes you tick and that you embrace that," ESPN analyst John McEnroe said. “And use that hopefully to your advantage."

Even by the standards of monomaniacal athletes, Djokovic is more single-minded than most. Alcaraz, the defending champion in pursuit of his third career Slam, called that focus Djokovic’s “mental rock": Even when he looks like he’s on the verge of losing, “he always gives the chance to himself to keep playing and be able to win."

Strangely, the US Open has provided a few rare exceptions to that rule. Though excels on hard courts and has won the Australian Open on 10 occasions, Djokovic’s record in Queens is a little thinner than you might expect. He’s won the US Open three times—as many times as the clay-court French Open—but lost six finals. The most recent came in 2021, when Djokovic’s bid for a calendar-year sweep of all four majors ended with an emotional defeat against Daniil Medvedev.

Then again, the US Open is a little more prone to upsets than most. No man has repeated as singles champion since Federer won five titles in a row from 2004 to 2008.

“Could be the fact that it’s the end of the season in a way…the last Grand Slam of the year," Djokovic said. “It’s been eight tough months of tennis for all the players."

The extra fatigue also makes an already unpredictable women’s draw even more open—there aren’t two clear favorites and the rest. The three Grand Slam tournaments this season have been won by three different players: Aryna Sabalenka, Iga Swiatek, and Marketa Vondrousova. But any of half a dozen women could make a compelling case to win, including world No. 4 Elena Rybakina, whose cannonball serve and explosive ground strokes have made her the best hard-court player in tennis.

Swiatek, meanwhile, remains the world No. 1 and defending champion, though she has complained about exhaustion this season and said she is still getting used to her status in the game. Winning three of the past six majors had put a target on her back for the rest of the field.

“I felt like everybody started to analyze my game, to learn a little bit more," she said on Friday. “They kind of focused on winning with me. So it wasn’t easy—I felt that."

It’s a problem that Djokovic has been familiar with for a while, especially in New York where he hasn’t been a champion since five years.

“I get nervous as anybody else, really," he said. “People think that I don’t have any stress or tension. Actually on the contrary, I have quite a lot of that. I have to deal with it, manage it."

Write to Joshua Robinson at

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