Gilbert On The Tactical Change That Could Give Djokovic Edge vs. Alcaraz
Like anyone who’s watched Carlos Alcaraz storm through three seeded opponents to reach the Roland Garros semi-finals, Brad Gilbert has been impressed by the 20-year-old’s dominance in Paris.
But for the former World No. 4 — who has coached the likes of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray — it is something other than Alcaraz’s seemingly limitless power that has stood out.
“He’s played with more guile. He’s played with more variety than he did last year,” Gilbert assessed. “He’s not trying to go through you. He can go through you, but he’s playing with a lot more shape and a lot more spin.”
After straight-sets wins against 26th seed Denis Shapovalov, 17th seed Lorenzo Musetti and fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alcaraz now faces his toughest test yet in Novak Djokovic.
Gilbert noted the shift from three opponents with one-handed backhands to the steady and solid two-hander of the Serbian. But he also pointed to one significant mental edge for Alcaraz against the 22-time major champ — a factor that would work against the Spaniard’s three latest victims, who hold a combined 3-22 record against Djokovic.
“So many of these young guys, they come in with a lot of skeletons, facing Djoker. He doesn’t,” Gilbert said. “He just played him that one time [last year in Madrid], got through it, and then amazingly, won the tournament.”
Gilbert is not putting too much stock in Alcaraz’s 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5) win from one year ago, given the faster clay surface and high altitude in Madrid. In fact, he makes Djokovic a slight favourite in the semi-final tilt. Using his customary American football analogy, he handicapped Djokovic as a half-point favourite, potentially rising as high as 1.5 points if wind is not a factor on Friday (Gilbert feels Alcaraz’s power and spin give him more options in blustery conditions).
“Just off of his amazing ability in best-of-five,” Gilbert said, explaining why he gives Djokovic the slight edge. That ability was on full display in the quarter-finals, when the Serbian weathered an early storm against Karen Khachanov and played a flawless tie-break to avoid falling into a two-set hole.
Djokovic has won all five tie-breaks he’s played this fortnight, all without a single unforced error. Gilbert calls it “lockdown mode”. But Alcaraz may be able to crack the code.
“Will he be able to do that against the Alcaraz offense?” Gilbert wondered. “Which maybe makes the coach in me think that you might see him play more offensive-minded. Maybe he thinks, ‘Shoot, if I don’t play a little more offensive-minded, I could get pushed around.’
“That’s what I do love about him. He can do something and, boom, it can change, because there’s still time in this five-set format.”
Dominant Djokovic The Tie-Break King
As far as the baseline exchanges, Gilbert praised both players for their defensive skills and movement and explained how they attack in different ways: “I would say Alcaraz has a big, big offense where he can hurt you with one shot,” he said. “And Djoker can string you four balls, which can burn your lungs.”
As for the intangibles, Gilbert doesn’t make much of Alcaraz’s relative inexperience deep in the Slams, but he does feel Djokovic’s ability to play his best with the crowd against him could come into play.
While he called clay a neutral surface for the competitors — Gilbert believes Alcaraz is currently at his best on hard courts — he likened the 20-year-old to Rafael Nadal in his ability to handle the Serbian’s best punch.
“Djokovic is playing a guy that, just like in Rafa on this surface, he could play well and still lose,” he said.
Brad Gilbert is the author of the seminal tennis strategy book Winning Ugly.