New York: Carlos Alcaraz has separated himself from the chasing pack and is performing at the same level as 23-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic, said Alexander Zverev on Wednesday after his US Open quarter-final defeat to the Spaniard.
Zverev was once viewed as the best bet to break the “Big Three’s” stranglehold on men’s tennis but the 26-year-old German has failed to kick on and is still seeking a first Grand Slam title.
With Roger Federer in retirement and Rafa Nadal likely to end his career after next season, Alcaraz has joined Djokovic at the top of the men’s game, and Zverev is perhaps best placed to pass judgement on the power shift having lost to both recently.
“I played Novak in Cincinnati (last month), I played Carlos here. They’re very similar from the level of the game,” Zverev told reporters after defending champion Alcaraz outclassed him 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
“There are some things Novak does better; there are some things Carlos does better. I think they’re at a level of their own at the moment.”
At 36, Djokovic is playing some of his best tennis and is chasing a 24th Grand Slam title to match Margaret Court’s all-time singles record.
The duo have dominated the tour this season with the Serb winning the Australian and French Opens while Alcaraz, 20, upstaged him at Wimbledon for his second Grand Slam crown.
“The other guys have got to catch up,” Zverev said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Zverev, who reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros this year, was plagued by an ankle injury last season but said a hamstring issue put paid to his hopes at Flushing Meadows.
“I couldn’t push off on my serve anymore. My serve speed was down a lot compared to other days,” he added.
“Against him, I needed a good serving day otherwise it would have been difficult. My biggest weapon was taken away after the first set.
“It’s difficult to even compete if you don’t have that.”
Alcaraz will take on Daniil Medvedev in the semi-final, featuring the last two Flushing Meadows champions. There were questions about how prepared Zverev would be to face the energetic Alcaraz after playing the longest match of the tournament on Monday — a near five-hour, five-set marathon in punishing conditions against Jannik Sinner.
And while the 2020 US Open finalist showed up ready to fight his tank emptied quickly, the 12th seed unable to keep pace with Alcaraz as the defending champion stepped on the gas to pull away for a straightforward win.
Alcaraz had only four break point chances throughout the entire contest but made each one of them count against a player starting to hit top gear again after an ankle injury last year.
“I remember the last time I played him in Madrid,” Alcaraz said of the clash in May when Zverev lost tamely.
“I was sad about it because we’ve played big matches. Seeing him in the quarters of a Grand Slam again playing at his best, I’m so happy for him.
“He was struggling a lot, working really hard to come back at his best and finally we all see him showing his best tennis.”
Medvedev reached the last four by beating eighth seed Andrey Rublev 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in stifling heat but by the time Alcaraz and Zverev appeared on Arthur Ashe for the late match much of the sting had been taken out of the brutal conditions.
Zverev, with his booming serve finding the mark, was able to keep pace with Alcaraz through the early part of the first set.
Alcaraz capitalised on his one break chance of the opener to go up 5-3 and then quickly held serve to take control.
As Zverev’s resistance dropped Alcaraz broke again early in second, delighting the crowd with some highlight reel shot-making and twirling his racquet like a baton.
“Of course, I’m playing to myself and to my team. But I try to make the people enjoy watching tennis,” Alcaraz said.
“Trying to do different shots that probably the crowd are not used to seeing in matches, drop shots, going to the net. I always say ‘put a smile’. I think people enjoy it as well.”
Another break to get in front 5-2 and a hold left Alcaraz with a big smile and Zverev calling for a medical time out.
He returned for the third set with a heavily strapped groin and fought on bravely until Alcaraz grabbed another late break before serving out for the win.