Alcaraz, Djokovic chase Cincinnati title – and No. 1 ranking

Aug 18, 2023

during the Western & Southern Open at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on Friday August 18, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Jared Wickerham)

By Nick McCarvel

Sunday will mark 35 days since the Wimbledon men’s final.

It’s about time for a re-match, isn’t it?

Not if Hubert Hurkacz and Alexander Zverev have anything to say about it, the two men tasked with stopping world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz and No. 2 Novak Djokovic from setting said championship re-match at the Western & Southern Open.

While the Rookwood Cup hangs in the balance for the four remaining men in Mason, so too does the No.1 ranking, though only for the aforementioned Wimbledon finalists, Alcaraz and Djokovic.

Should Alcaraz win on Saturday, he’ll maintain the No.1 ranking heading into the US Open. Djokovic needs an Alcaraz loss in the semis… and then to go on and win the title himself to get back to No.1.

It’s another number-crunching situation for Djokovic, who is playing in his first event since the Wimbledon final. He sets a tournament record with a ninth semifinal in Cincinnati, and is looking to equal Roger Federer’s record of eight finals appearances.

Speaking of Federer, an Alcaraz-Djokovic final would be the first No.1 vs. 2 here on the men’s side since 2012 when – you guessed it! – it was Federer and Djokovic. (Roger won that clash.)

It’s been a special week in Cincinnati for Alcaraz, who a year ago was still a relative newcomer for many tennis fans, making just his second appearance here. The past seven days his practices have been brimming with fans craning their necks to get a glance at tennis’ newest – and most lethal – superstar.

“It’s crazy to feel the love from the people,” he said on Friday after his three-set win over Max Purcell. “I see the full court in every practice. In the matches, as well. They stay late to watch my matches.

“I’m really grateful to have the support from the people,” he added. “I hope to have them in the semifinal.”

The challenge on Saturday for Alcaraz is big-serving Hurkacz, who he faced just a week ago in Toronto and needed a third-set tiebreak to escape.

The Pole appears to be playing some of his best tennis, taking out defending champion Borna Coric and then No.4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas this week to make his first ATP Masters 1000 semi since Montreal a year ago.

“[I have] to show my best level to beat him, he’s playing well,” Alcaraz confirmed of Hurkacz, whom he’s 2-0 against. “It’s going to be a really interesting semifinal. Really fun to watch.”

There is “fun to watch” potential brewing in the other match-up, as well, and perhaps the stiffest test yet for Zverev, the 2021 champion here, to find out if his game has reached the level it was at 15 months ago before his injury at the French Open, mid-match vs. Rafael Nadal. It took him out for the remainder of 2022.

He breezed through his quarter over Adrian Mannarino on Friday, setting up a 12th chapter in his rivalry vs. Nole, but a first meeting since 2021 – won by Zverev.

Djokovic (and Alcaraz) are the standard-bearers right now in men’s tennis, and while Zverev will try and test his level against the two-time Cincy champ, the dangerous thing is this: Djokovic is always looking to go a step beyond.

“That’s something I’m wishing for, every day, that I raise the bar,” Djokovic told TennisTV after his win over Taylor Fritz on Friday. “That’s what’s been happening during this tournament: I’ve played three great matches. Each day has been a better feeling on the court, so hopefully the same trajectory can continue.”

It’s what championship weekend is about in Cincinnati: Rising above the challenge.

So, who’s up for it?