Alcaraz, Djokovic 'not otherworldly' in French Open wins over foes making Slam debuts

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Serbia's Novak Djokovic is congratulated by Aleksandar Kovacevic of the U.S., left, after Djokovic won the first round match of the French Open tennis tournament in three sets, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7), at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Monday, May 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

PARIS – You might assume that the opponents for Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic in the French Open's first round would come away from their straight-set losses Monday feeling too overwhelmed by the play of the two tournament favorites.

You would be wrong.

Forget the scores and the point-by-point particulars on a windy day at Roland Garros for a moment. Of course it turned out that No. 1-seeded Alcaraz, the reigning U.S. Open champion, beat 159th-ranked qualifier Flavio Cobolli, a 21-year-old from Florence, Italy. And of course it turned out that No. 3 Djokovic, a 22-time major winner, got past 114th-ranked Aleksandar Kovacevic, a 24-year-old who grew up in New York City and is now based in Florida.

And naturally, both Cobolli and Kovacevic acknowledged feeling a bit jittery at the outset of what were their Grand Slam debuts in huge arenas against a couple of elite players.

“I started in a bit of a daze,” Cobolli said after his 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 loss, “because of the emotions.”

“A couple of times there, I did look up and take it all in. I made sure of that, because this is the kind of experience I’ll definitely hold onto forever,” Kovacevic said after his 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1) loss. “It's not the best thing in the world to get lost in the crowd. You start to really look at everyone that's there — and that's when the nerves hit.”

But what both of them wanted to make clear afterward was that, yes, Alcaraz and Djokovic are exceptionally talented, but, no, it did not seem to be impossible to find openings to exploit.

“It's definitely intimidating. Watching him on TV growing up, it’s hard not to look past that and knowing what he’s accomplished. But from a tennis standpoint, it’s not otherworldly,” said Kovacevic, who was 7 when he first met Djokovic and later practiced with him during the 2021 U.S. Open after playing college tennis at the University of Illinois. “The things he does well, he does unbelievably well, but the ball that he hits — it’s not blowing me completely off the court, which was honestly somewhat surprising.”

Other seeded men advancing on Day 2 in Paris included No. 8 Jannik Sinner, No. 12 Frances Tiafoe, No. 14 Cam Norrie and No. 15 Borna Coric. Among the seeded women moving into the second round: No. 5 Caroline Garcia, No. 14 Beatriz Haddad Maia, No. 20 Madison Keys and No. 22 Donna Vekic. Seeds on the way out included No. 10 Petra Kvitova, No. 12 Belinda Bencic and No. 16 Karolina Pliskova in the women’s bracket, along with No. 10 Felix Auger-Aliassime and No. 25 Botic Van de Zandschulp in the men’s.

With 14-time champion Rafael Nadal sidelined by a hip injury, Alcaraz and Djokovic are considered the favorites for the men's title and could meet in the semifinals. If Djokovic wins the trophy, he would earn his 23rd at a Slam and break the tie for the men's record he and Nadal currently share.

Cobolli's first career match on the lower-level ATP Challenger Tour was a loss in qualifying against Alcaraz in Italy in August 2000. Cobolli chuckled Monday while recalling that encounter and pointing out that, while both have grown as players since then, “He’s grown more.”

“It’s impressive how he handles himself on important points. That’s one of his best qualities. His ball speed is faster than most players in this tournament. It’s so difficult to get him in trouble,” Cobolli said. “But like all of us human beings, he does have his weaker aspects.”

Which, perhaps, was why both of these contests were lopsided at the beginning — “At the start of the match,” Alcaraz said, “I felt invincible — and included a bit of intrigue down the stretch.” Alcaraz held three match points to close things at 5-3 in the third set but couldn’t convert, then found himself at 5-all minutes later. Djokovic served to end his match at 5-4 in the third but got broken there to also sit at 5-all.

“Made me work for my victory,” Djokovic said.

In both instances, to the surprise of no one, the higher-rated player steadied himself and sealed the deal.

Before coming to Paris, the last tournament entered by both Cobolli and Kovacevic was an ATP Challenger Tour event in Turin. Cobolli made the case that the talent there was not all that different from what his first foray in a Grand Slam bracket presented.

“I don't think there’s a ton of distance between us and them. They have something extra, so in the end, they do take home the win,” he said. “But we can play with them.”

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