After tossing and turning many times on Sunday night, Aleksandar Kovacevic finally settled into about six hours of restless sleep.
He had good reason to be nervous. The 24-year-old, ranked 114th in the world, had a midday tennis date with 22-time Grand Slam singles champion Novak Djokovic in the first round of the French Open.
The only person with a more difficult task is probably the Italian Flavio Cobolli. The 21-year-old, ranked 159th, survived last week’s qualifying tournament, but was rewarded with a showdown with Carlos Alcaraz in the season opener.
It didn’t work out for either unknown.
About 35 minutes into Cobolli’s game nine, Alcaraz’s forehand flew wide, and Cobolli yelled, swung his racket in celebration, and a smile spread across his face. He raised his fists at the crowd as he walked to his chair. He finally won a match against the best player in the world. The player was just playing like the best player in the world.
“I did the best I could,” Kobori said.
Kovacevic, who lost 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1) to Djokovic, also felt what it was like, even though he spent more than two hours on court with his favorite player. I knew very well what it felt like. He grew up admiring idols.
“There were some points, passing shots he hit, but those were points where I sometimes felt like I didn’t have a chance,” Kovacevic said. “And those are definitely acts of humility.”
It’s a truism of tennis that top players hate playing in the first round of a Grand Slam. Anything other than sailing to victory is cause for concern. There’s also always the possibility of a fiasco in the form of a loss to someone you’ve barely heard of.
Whatever discomfort Djokovic and Alcaraz felt when they stepped onto the court at Roland Garros on Monday, Alcaraz in particular had little trouble dealing with it. He made an early contribution to the tournament’s highlight reel by curling a backhand near the net post early in the second set to seal the winner. Djokovic had been training more and even lost his serve in the closing stages of the match when a wind-blown clay hit his eye.
It also helped that the stars drew against opponents in triple figures in the rankings whose recent experience had little in common with them. Kovacevic had a particularly winding road before dating Djokovic on Center Court at the French Open.
His father, Milan, immigrated from Serbia to the United States to pursue a PhD in computer science at UCLA. 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 the ninth grade, he spent an afternoon training at John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall Island, but was still not good enough to play singles at Beacon High School, a public school in Midtown.
After he left Beacon to train in Florida while taking classes at home, things started to get better. In one summer tournament, he faced a top junior who was going to the University of Illinois. He wasn’t really interested in college, but his opponent said, “Let’s go to school together.” By the time he finished five years later, he was ranked in the low 400s and thought he’d give professional tennis a try.
Since then, he’s played mostly in the tennis hinterlands, but won a match in the main draw at the prestigious Miami Open in March.
“It hasn’t been the brightest of the last few years,” he said.
On Monday, Kovacevic made his Grand Slam debut against Djokovic on Roland Garros’ main court, Philippe Chatrier, but it wasn’t the first time he faced Djokovic.
It happened at the U.S. Open when he was 6 years old, and long before Djokovic was a future player, the 18-year-old Djokovic won an early-round match with his proud parents in the Balkans. I took him to see it. And two years ago, he was one point short of qualifying at the US Open, warming up Djokovic.
he I have a photo to prove it, and tried to incorporate elements of Djokovic’s game into his own game. His squats (his knees wide open, chest puffed, racket forward) as he waits for his opponent’s serve has plenty of Djokovic flair, even if the rest of the match isn’t quite there yet. there is
“I think it wouldn’t be so crazy for me to play with players like this in my career,” he said. “But you know, the little kid in me, I’m standing in the Chatelier in front of a packed crowd and playing the greatest player ever with a racket. It’s something you have to accept for a moment. But you also have to push it away and try to focus and play.”
Ultimately, there may be something to be said about the perfect player to pick up the racket as Alcaraz started his career. Everyone in tennis knows this, including Kobori, who has spent most of his short career in the tennis minor leagues.
As he climbed into the elevator and was still content to qualify for the opening round of a Grand Slam, he looked at his phone and saw that his opponent was Alcaraz. He said he closed his eyes, ran his hands through his hair, and thought, “Oh no.”
At about three fifteen minutes into the game, the game was going as he feared. Alcaraz couldn’t let this go by and he later said he felt “invincible” to never lose the match. Cobolli barely had time to catch his breath between shots.
The scoreboard read 6-0, 2-0.
“He was playing unbelievably,” Cobolli said.
On the bright side, the French crowd loves nothing more than rallying behind a player being electrocuted, except for the French player. And by the time Cobolli stepped under him and the third set was tied at 5-5, the nearly 10,000 crowd at Suzanne Lenglen Court were shouting his name. It seemed like he was mine, especially after saving three match points and breaking Alcaraz’s serve to tie the set.
“I felt important on the court,” Kobori said.
The final scores were 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 with an elapsed time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.
Cobolli said he now has an up-close look at what the best players look like, so he has a better understanding of what he has to do to compete. Let’s go to the weight room, he said, laughing as he put his hand on his chest. And I’m getting better at tennis.
Like many Kovacevich and Kovolis in the game, he has eternal hope. Just two years ago, he was also in the triple figures for Alcaraz.