Rome: Djokovic wise to put onus on in-form Alcaraz, given their contrasting form

Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates his second victory against Tomas Martin Etcheverry of Argentina in the men's singles second round during day five...

As 22-time Major champion Novak Djokovic begins the defence of his Rome title this weekend, he’s wise to acknowledge Madrid titlist Carlos Alcaraz is the player to beat right now. Having struggled with an elbow injury and some inconsistent play of late, the Serb’s public declaration in a pre-tournament presser eases pressure off his shoulders as he looks to peak at Roland Garros.

Djokovic hails impressive Alcaraz as player to beat

Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a backhand in the men's singles second round against Tomas Martin Etcheverry of Argentina during day five of the...
Djokovic wearing a right arm sleeve in his hard-earned R2 win over Etcheverry

Feeling good after a troublesome elbow issue that hurt his progress in Monte Carlo and Banja Luka last month, Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic has rightly described Carlos Alcaraz as the man to beat on clay at present.

After all, clay specialist Rafael Nadal (hip) still remains sidelined with an injury that hasn’t fully healed from a premature exit in Melbourne four months ago.

Since then, Alcaraz has been busy on his own return from injury: winning four titles including consecutive weeks in Barcelona and Madrid, been a runner-up at another and narrowly lost in the semis against an ever-growing rival in Miami last month.

As such, it’s not a surprise to see Djokovic talk about the 20-year-old Spaniard in such a way. After all, he’s on a 11-match winning run and boasts a 31-2 win/loss record on the season so far, so the numbers speak for themselves.

Djokovic, who turns 36 the week after next, has conceded that he’s no longer a spring chicken on tour – no matter how much he jokes about age and still feeling young when quizzed about the hungry contenders in jovial post-match interviews on court.

Surprising defeats by Lorenzo Musetti and compatriot Dusan Lajovic in consecutive weeks, as well as slow starts and error-prone displays of late have led fans to question whether it’s wise for the Serb to play while still clearly bothered by injury.

During his 7-6, 6-4 win over Argentina’s Tomas Martin Etcheverry on Friday, he was sporting a right arm sleeve and wouldn’t be doing so unless conciously trying to protect an ongoing issue, no matter how much he downplays its severity.

This Rome tournament is the first of the 2023 campaign featuring both Djokovic and Alcaraz, the two top-ranked players on the ATP tour.

Alcaraz put through his paces during a hitting session earlier this weekend

Although they’re naturally at different ends of the draw, there’s an eagerness to see them meet one another in next weekend’s final after their first and only meeting in the Madrid semi-final last year.

Alcaraz earned a 6-4, 6-1 win over compatriot Albert Ramos-Vinolas on Saturday, guaranteeing he’ll be the top seed at Roland Garros while confirming his return to world no. 1 in the process.

He’ll play Hungarian qualifier Fabian Marozsan in the last-16 on Monday, after the 23-year-old stunned Australian Open quarterfinalist Jiri Lehecka 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-4).

“It’s something crazy that I couldn’t believe it years ago, I’m really happy, but for me, it doesn’t change too much to be No. 1 or No. 2 seed – just focus on the tournament, my game on every match, so that’s something I try not to think about. Still, it’s great to be No. 1.”

  • Alcaraz on his mindset and the psychological boost of being #1

Djokovic echoed that sentiment before the tournament, saying: “He’s been playing some very impressive tennis, a great level, one of the top favourites without any dilemma.” 

Picture source: Getty Images, quotes via