Djokovic collapsed on his back before tearing his shirt off after triumphing in the nearly four-hour contest to win his third title in Cincinnati and avenge his loss to Alcaraz in last month’s Wimbledon final.
“This was one of the exciting matches I’ve ever played in any tournament,” Djokovic, the winner of a men’s-record 23 Grand Slam titles, said during the postmatch trophy presentation. “It felt like a Grand Slam.”
With temperatures hovering near 90 degrees, the 36-year-old Djokovic survived the tournament’s longest men’s match since at least 1990 to become the oldest man to win the championship. Ken Rosewall was 35 when he won in 1970.
At 3 hours, 49 minutes, the match was the longest best-of-three set final in ATP tour history (since 1990).
The Serbian player looked hobbled by the intense humidity at the tail end of the first set, barely moving when Alcaraz hit a backhand winner to grab the opener.
Alcaraz, who looked fresh despite being on the court for more than 10 hours this week, grabbed a 4-2 second-set lead, and it appeared the Spanish star might cruise to the finish line.
But Alcaraz would produce a terrible service game while leading 4-3 that included four unforced errors to give life to the world No. 2.
In the second-set tiebreak, Djokovic saved a championship point and went on to force a deciding set after winning a 25-shot rally.
During the break before the third set, a frustrated Alcaraz pounded a hand against the plastic drinks container next to his chair, requiring a medical timeout to tape his finger.
In the decider, Djokovic broke on his fifth opportunity of the game for a 4-3 lead.
The drama would continue as Djokovic squandered two match points while returning and leading 5-3.
Alcaraz would save two more match points and break serve when Djokovic missed an overhead for 5-5.
The players ultimately arrived at another tiebreak, which Djokovic won when the 20-year-old’s forehand return went wide.
The win was Djokovic’s 95th career title and 39th Masters 1000 crown.
“I have so much to say, but I’m not sure that I have the energy,” Djokovic said, cradling his trophy. He paused and looked at Alcaraz.
“You never give up, do you?” he said. “I love that about you. I hope we meet in New York. That would be fun — well, for the fans, not for me.”
The US Open begins Aug. 28. Alcaraz, the defending champion, is guaranteed to remain No. 1 heading into the tournament.
“The match was pretty close,” Alcaraz said. “I’ll be back.”
Sunday’s meeting was the fourth one between Djokovic and Alcaraz, with each player having won two matches.
“The feeling that I have on the court reminds me a little bit when I was facing [Rafael] Nadal when we were at our prime,” said Djokovic, who moved ahead of the Spaniard on the all-time men’s majors list after winning at Roland Garros in June. “Each point is a hustle. Each point is a battle. You’ve got to basically earn every single point, every single shot, regardless of the conditions.”
Djokovic likened Sunday’s marathon match to the 2012 Australian Open final, when he defeated Nadal in 5 hours and 53 minutes.
“I don’t think I’ve played too many matches like this in my life,” Djokovic told reporters. “You just have to put your hats down to a guy like that. He plays so maturely, handles the pressure so well for a 20-year-old.
“We cannot forget how young he is. That’s something that is so impressive about him.”
Said Alcaraz: “It’s great to hear those things from Novak, [who] has played iconic matches, storied matches. That means the team and myself, we are doing great work, we are on a good path.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.