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Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic will meet Sunday for the Western & Southern Open title.

Preview: Will Djokovic Strike Back Against Alcaraz In Cincinnati Final?

Alcaraz leads Lexus ATP Head2Head series 2-1

Was the Wimbledon final the passing of the torch from Novak Djokovic to Carlos Alcaraz? The Western & Southern Open championship match will be an opportunity for Djokovic to prove it was not.

All week, fans have waited for the potential of a blockbuster showdown between Alcaraz and Djokovic, the clear top two players in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. That is exactly what they will get Sunday in Cincinnati.

“It’s great. It’s amazing for the sport, No. 1 and No. 2 in the world facing each other again in the final of a big event,” Djokovic said after defeating two-time Nitto ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals. “This is I guess what everybody wanted and expected in the beginning of the tournament, so here we are.”

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No matter who wins, Alcaraz will depart the Lindner Family Tennis Centre as World No. 1, having secured his standing by reaching the final. But another triumph over the 38-time ATP Masters 1000 champion will send a clear message — he is the standalone favourite heading into the US Open.

The last time the two tennis titans stood across the net from one another, just more than a month ago, Djokovic was as confident as ever. The 36-year-old was eight wins from becoming the first man to complete the Grand Slam — winning all four majors in the same season — since Rod Laver in 1969. Up a set and with a set point in the second-set tie-break, the Serbian seemed well on his way.

Djokovic is a man who thrives on chasing history. But that day, Alcaraz refused to serve as a stepping stone to the record books. Instead of capturing a 24th major trophy and further cementing his legacy, Djokovic suffered a setback that has been rare for him over the past decade. On 16 July, he met his match.

Just weeks earlier, Alcaraz was so tense during his Roland Garros semi-final against the Serbian, he suffered from cramp and stood no realistic chance of posing a threat because he was physically compromised.

But Djokovic, who never blinks, blinked. Having won 15 consecutive tie-breaks at majors, he lost one in the second set. That proved the only opening Alcaraz needed. Already a major champion at the 2022 US Open, the Spaniard knew what it took to win at the highest level. But defeating Djokovic in a Slam final is an even greater challenge, and he rose to the occasion, winning a captivating five-setter.

Alcaraz’s game is no replica of Djokovic’s. But that day, the World No. 1 showed he is developing similar traits. The 23-time major winner has spoken about the mental edge he owns over most opponents because of what he has achieved.

But the same way Djokovic had no fear of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal when he was on the rise, Alcaraz did not shy away from the challenge of going blow for blow with the seven-time Wimbledon champion. It did not matter that it was just the fourth grass-court tournament of his career.

So often, the 94-time tour-level titlist has escaped inescapable positions in matches by finding a way to win the biggest points, giving himself a shot to find his best tennis later in the match. Alcaraz essentially Djokovic’d Djokovic that day on Centre Court and in doing so, pierced the Serbian’s aura of invincibility with a wide smile on his face.

“It's not the first [nor] the last match that I lost, so I was over it in a day,” Djokovic said before beginning his run this week in Cincinnati.

But Djokovic surely has not forgotten and is eager to make a statement of his own in Ohio, where in 2018 he completed the Career Golden Masters. No other player has won all nine Masters 1000 tournaments, and the Serbian has already done so twice. By winning Sunday, he will own at least three titles at all events at that level except Monte-Carlo. This is only Alcaraz's third appearance in Cincinnati.

The World No. 1 enters their showdown with a 2-1 lead in their Lexus ATP Head2Head series, but this will be their first clash on a hard court. And although Djokovic is playing his first tournament since Wimbledon this week, he has been in better form than his younger opponent.

The two-time Western & Southern Open champion has not lost a set en route to the final. Djokovic has had his game face on since his first practice at the Lindner Family Tennis Centre. His intensity has been clear. Outside of one funny moment with a fan during his second-round match against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, he has been a man on a mission.

On the other side of the draw, Alcaraz has needed to win a deciding set in each of his four matches. After pulling his latest Houdini act Saturday against Hubert Hurkacz, against whom he saved a match point, the 20-year-old looked at his team, led by former World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, and held his arms out as if to say, “Are you surprised?”

“I feel good. Probably the people can think that I’m going to be tired in the final. But I feel good,” Alcaraz said. “It doesn't matter if I play in third sets, long matches. I'm recovering really, really well with my physio, with my team. I feel like I'm going to play the first match of the tournament. I feel great.”

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Players have spoken about the relative speed of the court in Cincinnati, so it will be interesting to see if either superstar will be able to earn an advantage with a big serving day. At Wimbledon, neither player dominated with their delivery, with Alcaraz leading the way by winning 70 per cent of his first-serve points.

That day, Alcaraz hit 66 winners to Djokovic’s 32, so the Serbian will likely try to find a way to neutralise the Spaniard’s offence and perhaps take the initiative himself.

There is only one player who owns at least three victories over Djokovic and a winning record against him: former World No. 1 Andy Roddick (5-4), who retired when the Serbian was just a five-time major champion. Alcaraz can join Roddick on the exclusive list Sunday.

But Djokovic has won more than double the number of Masters 1000 tournaments (38) as Alcaraz has played (18). As much momentum as the 20-year-old earned by winning Wimbledon, this is Novak’s chance to strike back.