Alcaraz vs. Djokovic – Roland Garros 2023
The men’s semi-final of the French Open ended in extreme disappointment. The most highly anticipated match of the season ended with Carlitos limping through the last 2 sets after splitting the first two. The players had met before – in Madrid in 2022 with Alcaraz winning a 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 nail-biter.
Overall, in that match Carlos won 135 points to Djokovic’s 131. What was different about this match from Madrid? I’m not suggesting the match format, but rather what actually happened on the court. Several key metrics stand out. I use data from only the first 2 sets at RG as, after the cramps, it was no longer a match.
At the most basic level, this match was a near replay of the match in Madrid. In similar fashion, Alcaraz lost the first set 6-3, winning 46% of points played at RG, where he had won only 44% in Madrid last year. Nothing to panic about and he didn’t, winning 55% of the second set points at RG in a virtual replica of what he had done in Madrid.
There were however, seismic changes going on just below the surface. With the altitude in Madid, it is possible to play aggressive tennis more successfully. The average rally length in Madrid was 3.85 shots. For the first 2 sets at RG, this ballooned to 5.15 shots. Winning points on his serve became much more work for Alcaraz despite the fact that he was exactly even at 55% in the second set. In Madrid, his average rally was 3.57 shots, while at RG it grew to 5.56 shots. It is highly possible that this increased workload was a direct cause of the cramps.
I have employed another match statistic called DOMINANCE. This is the percentage of point ending shots, whether a winner or an error, that is attributable to each stroke. Rather astoundingly, the DOMINANCE numbers were almost exactly equal for backhands, serves, volley/overheads. This suggests that the players were playing the same match as they did in Madrid. This is false. There was a large swing in forehand DOMINANCE. Alcaraz slipped from 30.6% (a very high number) in Madrid to 26.6% at RG. Nearly all of this accrued to Djokovic’s forehand. To be sure, Alcaraz reaped a reward to being less aggressive: his winners and errors were equal at RG, whereas he made 9 more errors than winners at Madrid. However, he clearly paid the price with the longer rally lengths. Incredibly, Alcaraz won 78% of the 5-8 rally length points in set 2. However, he was winning at a price. Overall, in winning set 2 in both matches, Alcaraz was forced to play over 22% more of the points in 5+ rallies when compared to Madrid.
It is a remarkable tribute to Djokovic that his 36-year-old body held up far better than that of his 19-year-old opponent. This was a part of the game plan as surely as any tennis tactic. As I am not fan, it’s tough for me to say this: Congratulations Novak! The raw data is in the attached pdf - sheet 5.