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In a colossal major semifinal, Alcaraz and Djokovic finally meet again

  • Matt Trollope

Could you better script a Grand Slam semifinal?

It is hard to argue against Carlos Alcaraz versus Novak Djokovic, a match-up set for Friday at Roland Garros, being one of the most highly-anticipated matches we can remember. 

It is an intergenerational clash, pitting a present legend of the game against the sport’s future. The reigning US Open champion (Alcaraz) against the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion (Djokovic). The winner could very well secure the world No.1 ranking. 

It takes on even more significance when you consider the history Djokovic is playing for, and the fact he will have to go through the game’s most in-form player to achieve it. 

Neither player has lost a Grand Slam match in almost a year, with winning streaks in the double-digits. 

The phrase “irresistible force meets immovable object” is peppered throughout sportswriting. But this is definitely an occasion for which it applies.

Quarterfinal day

The sense of anticipation was heightened on Tuesday in Paris, given Djokovic and Alcaraz lined up against opponents whom they’d dominated. 

Djokovic was 8-1 against Karen Khachanov, and since his surprising loss to the Russian in the 2018 Paris Masters final, he had won their subsequent seven meetings, including 15 of 16 sets. 

Alcaraz had never lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in four prior meetings; just six weeks ago, he beat the Greek in straight sets in the Barcelona final.

Khachanov has enjoyed a resurgent 12 months, with Roland Garros marking his third straight trip to a major quarterfinal. He snatched the first set from Djokovic before the 22-time major champion recovered to win in four. 

As Alcaraz followed Djokovic onto Court Philippe Chatrier for the night session, the Serb was, as expected, asked about the prospect of facing the world No.1.

“He has to win against Tsitsipas, let's not forget about that. We cannot disrespect Stefanos who has played finals here and is top, top player for many years,” Djokovic answered. 

“So let's see what happens tonight.”

What happened was a straight-sets domination. 

The surging Spaniard built a 6-2 6-1 5-2 lead before Tsitsipas made the closing stages tight and tense. Nevertheless, Alcaraz completed a 6-2 6-1 7-6(5) triumph, on his sixth match point, to book his date with Djokovic.

“I would say (it’s) one of my best matches on my career,” Alcaraz assessed.

Ships passing in the night

Men’s tennis has rarely struggled for blockbuster match-ups deep in major tournaments. 

This was especially true in the ‘Big Four’ era, when you could practically depend on Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray to play to their seedings, set up matches which invariably captivated fans, and add layers to their storied rivalries. 

The Alcaraz-Djokovic match-up has taken on an altogether different feel due to its scarcity.

They have met just once, in a barnstorming Madrid Masters semifinal last May. Alcaraz won in a third-set tiebreak, after a gladiatorial three hours and 35 minutes. 

Carlos Alcaraz (R) and Novak Djokovic meet at the net after their Madrid Masters semifinal in 2022, their only previous meeting. [Getty Images]

Despite everything they have since achieved – both have won majors and traded the No.1 ranking back and forth – they have done so without facing the other. 

The more time passed without them going head-to-head, the more the tennis world wanted to see it. 

The situation attained near-absurdist levels in Rome, remarkably the first tournament of 2023 at which both players featured in the same draw. Alcaraz arrived as the Barcelona and Madrid champion, oozing confidence. Djokovic was the defending champion, returning to a city that traditionally brings out his best.

Signs pointed to a long-awaited meeting – until Alcaraz was stunned by 135th-ranked qualifier Fabian Marozsan, a player who had never before played a tour-level event. Djokovic fared better, but lost to ascendant Dane Holger Rune in the quarterfinals.

Daniil Medvedev ultimately won the Rome title, rising to world No.2 and pushing Djokovic down to No.3. This made possible the situation we saw at the Roland Garros draw ceremony, where Djokovic landed in top seed Alcaraz’ half.

With each win notched and round passed, Alcaraz and Djokovic moved closer to that projected semifinal meeting.

They finally set it up on Tuesday.

What the players think

Djokovic’s four-set win over Khachanov marked the first time he had dropped a set this fortnight. 

The 36-year-old is now undefeated in his past 19 Grand Slam matches as he takes a step closer to an all-time men’s record of 23 major singles titles. 

He must win Roland Garros to take back the world No.1 ranking.

“If it comes to that match, that's the match that a lot of people want to see,” Djokovic said of facing Alcaraz.

Carlos Alcaraz (L) and Novak Djokovic will clash for the first time at a Grand Slam tournament when they meet in the semifinals of Roland Garros. [Getty Images]

“It's definitely the biggest challenge for me so far in the tournament. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. He's definitely a guy to beat here. 

“I'm looking forward to that.”

Similarly, Alcaraz has dropped just one set en route to the semifinals, a career-best result in Paris for the 20-year-old. 

He has won 35 of his 38 matches in 2023, and is 17-1 on clay since the Miami Open.

“I would say since the draw came out, everyone was expecting that match, the semifinal against Novak. Myself as well. I really want to play that match,” Alcaraz said.

“Since last year I really wanted to play again against Novak. We both are playing a great level.

“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. So I'm really looking for that match. I'm gonna enjoy it.

“Of course for me, it's amazing to make history, you know, playing a semifinal with such a legend like Novak.

“I would say the match we played last year doesn't affect too much to this one. It was one year ago. 

“Let's see what happen on Friday.”