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The Agony of Playing Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic on the French Open


Aleksandar Kovacevic did loads of tossing and turning Sunday night before finally settling in for what he thought was about six hours of restless sleep.

He had good reason to be nervous. Kovacevic, who’s 24 years old and the world’s 114th-ranked player, had a noon tennis date in the primary round of the French Open with Novak Djokovic, the winner of twenty-two Grand Slam singles titles.

The one person with a more daunting project perhaps was Flavio Cobolli of Italy. Cobolli, who’s 21 and ranked 159th, survived the qualifying tournament last week, only to be rewarded with an opening-round confrontation with Carlos Alcaraz.

It didn’t go so well for either of the unknowns.

Nine games and roughly 35 minutes into Cobolli’s match, an Alcaraz forehand sailed long and Cobolli let loose a scream, swung his racket in celebration and let a smile spread across his face. He pumped his fist to the group as he walked to his chair. He had finally won a game against the very best player on the earth, who was playing like, well, the very best player on the earth.

“I did the very best I could,” Cobolli said.

Kovacevic, who lost to Djokovic, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(1), had a fairly good idea of what that felt like, too, regardless that he lasted greater than two hours on the court with a player he grew up idolizing.

“There was some points, passing shots that he hits, they usually’re just points where I feel like I had no probability sometimes,” Kovacevic said. “And people are definitely humbling.”

It’s a truism of tennis that the highest players hate playing the primary round of a Grand Slam. Anything but a cruise to victory is cause for concern. Also, there’s all the time the potential for epic failure in the shape of a loss to someone few have heard of.

Whatever discomfort Djokovic and Alcaraz can have felt walking onto the courts at Roland Garros on Monday, they mostly managed it with ease, especially Alcaraz. He made an early contribution to the tournament highlight reel, curling a backhand around the online post for a winner early within the second set. Djokovic had more of a workout, and even lost his serve late in his match after getting windblown clay in his eyes.

It helped that the celebrities drew opponents with three digits of their rankings whose recent experience didn’t have much in common with their very own. Kovacevic had a very winding journey to his date on the French Open’s center court with Djokovic.

His father, Milan, immigrated to America from Serbia to pursue a doctorate in computer science from U.C.L.A. His mother is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kovacevic grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, about 500 yards from the green clay of the Central Park tennis complex.

In ninth grade, he still wasn’t adequate to play singles for Beacon High School, a public school in Midtown, regardless that he was spending afternoons training on the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall’s Island.

Things began to click after he left Beacon to coach in Florida while taking classes at home. At a tournament one summer, he played a top junior who was planning to attend the University of Illinois. His opponent told him he should join him at the college, so he did, regardless that he didn’t have much interest in college. By the point he finished five years later, he was ranked within the low 400s and figured he would give pro tennis a shot.

Since then he has mostly been playing within the tennis hinterlands, though he did win a match within the major draw of the distinguished Miami Open in March.

“It has not been essentially the most glorious during the last couple of years,” he said.

On Monday, Kovacevic made his Grand Slam debut against Djokovic on the major court at Roland Garros, Philippe Chatrier, though it wasn’t his first time meeting Djokovic.

That happened on the U.S. Open when he was 6 and his Balkan-proud parents brought him to look at the 18-year-old Djokovic win an early-round match, long before Djokovic was the player he would develop into. And two years ago he warmed up Djokovic on the U.S. Open after coming inside a degree of qualifying to play.

He has the photographs to prove it, and he has tried to include elements of Djokovic’s game into his own. His squat as he waits for an opponent’s serve — knees wide, chest up, racket out front — has loads of Djokovic in it, even when the remainder of his game isn’t quite there yet.

“Where I’m in my profession, prefer it shouldn’t be so crazy to me that I’m playing a few of these guys,” he said. “But, you realize, the little kid in me, I’m standing in Chatrier in front of a packed crowd, playing the very best player to ever pick up a racket. It’s something that you just got to soak up for a second, but in addition push away and take a look at to focus and play.”

The way in which Alcaraz has began his profession, he may eventually have something to say about who’s the very best player to select up a racket. Everyone in tennis knows this, including Cobolli, who has also spent most of his transient profession in the game’s version of the minor leagues.

He was in an elevator, still feeling good about qualifying for his first major draw Grand Slam match, when he checked out his phone and saw that his opponent was Alcaraz. He said he closed his eyes, ran his hand through his hair, and thought, “Oh no.”

Roughly, three-quarters of an hour into the match, it was going as he dreaded it would. Alcaraz couldn’t miss and later said he felt “invincible,” like he would never lose a game. Cobolli barely had time to breathe between shots.

The scoreboard said 6-0, 2-0.

“He was playing incredible,” Cobolli said.

On the intense side, there’s nothing the French crowd loves more — aside from a French player — than rallying behind a player who’s getting blitzed. And by the point Cobolli got his legs under him, knotting the third set at 5-5, the group of nearly 10,000 on the Suzanne Lenglen court was chanting his name. It was like he was certainly one of their very own, especially after he saved three match points and broke Alcaraz’s serve to attract even within the set.

“I felt essential on the court,” Cobolli said.

The ultimate rating was 6-0, 6-2, 7-5, the elapsed time 1 hour, 57 minutes.

Now that Cobolli has seen up close what the very best looks like, he said he understands higher what he must do to compete — hit the burden room, he said with a smile as he pushed in at his chest along with his hand. And recover at tennis.

Hope springs everlasting for him because it does for thus most of the Kovacevics and Cobollis in the sport. Just over two years ago, Alcaraz’s rating had three digits, too.

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