Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and the path to a generational French Open clash

After a series of near-misses, Djokovic and Alcaraz finally meet again at Roland Garros as tennis gets a second chapter of its next great rivalry

Jamie Braidwood
Friday 09 June 2023 07:22 BST
'One of the best matches of my career,' Alcaraz on his win over Tsitsipas

When the French Open reaches its semi-final stage at Roland Garros, 391 days will have passed since Carlos Alcaraz faced Novak Djokovic for the first time and gave tennis the shot in the arm it has longed for ever since. As moments of sporting symbolism go, Alcaraz defeating Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on consecutive days on the Madrid clay, aged 18, was as clear as they come, and foreshadowed what happened next: the Spaniard winning his first grand slam at the US Open and finishing the year as the youngest world No 1 in history.

But as everything happened so quickly and Alcaraz’s star rose at an astonishing rate, something else has taken longer to materialise: the rematch.

Over the past year, Djokovic and Alcaraz have circled each other, but with their orbits barely touching. Grand slam titles and the world No 1 ranking have passed between them, but without a second meeting. Alcaraz’s US Open title came as Djokovic was unable to travel to New York, then Djokovic triumphed at the Australian Open while Alcaraz missed out due to injury. Both absences left a void that has been filled by debate: with both players reaching great highs without needing to face each other.

Thankfully, the tennis gods have replied.

The French Open semi-finals will now stage their long-awaited second act, and the first in best-of-fives sets. After being drawn in the same half of the tournament at Roland Garros, Djokovic and Alcaraz have advanced through their first five matches while showing why they are the only two real contenders for Nadal’s crown. With the great Spaniard absent from the French Open for the first time since 2005, Djokovic’s main rival has gone from being a 37-year-old to a 20-year-old.

Djokovic can surpass Nadal on the most successful court of the Spaniard’s career with a record 23rd grand slam title. Alcaraz, though, will be the player to beat. “We’ve been saying this for years, we expected it to come,” Djokovic said before the tournament, the generational shift in men’s tennis obvious for all to see. Although only a year younger than Nadal at 36, the Serbian would undoubtedly have longed for the day when the 14-time French Open champion was unable to defend his title in Paris, but then Alcaraz arrived, and the challenge was reset.

Nadal’s shoes are impossible to fill at Roland Garros but Alcaraz has shown he has the weapons, clay-court game and personality to step into them. “When his adrenaline goes up, he’s practically unstoppable,” Nadal said after facing Alcaraz last year, and in the time since he has grown and matured, both physically and mentally. Alcaraz may appear to be a right-handed reincarnation of Nadal, who was his idol growing up in Murcia, but he says his game is more like Roger Federer’s: all-out attack, with an aversion to risk. He has reached a stunning level so far in Paris, particularly in his merciless destruction of Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals.

Alcaraz defended his Madrid Open title this season

Alcaraz is driven by the words of his grandfather and the three Cs: cabeza, corazón, cojones -  or head, heart and balls. He had them tattooed on his arm after winning the US Open last September. If it was the latter two words that proved pivotal in his first victory over Djokovic in Madrid, a semi-final clash against the 22-time grand slam champion in Paris represents the ultimate test of his cabeza. Djokovic’s mental toughness is his greatest asset at the grand slams and it drives his game to reach sublime levels under the highest of pressure.

Djokovic has not always been at his best at this year’s French Open but he has turned his game on when it has mattered, almost as if he has been willing himself into shape. He has been forced into five tiebreaks on his run to the semi-finals and has won them all, outscoring his opponents 35-12 and without making a single unforced error. Djokovic calls it his “lockdown mentality” and against Alcaraz it will be required for much longer spells.

At 36, Djokovic prioritises the grand slams and was not concerned about arriving at the French Open without winning a title on clay this season. His defeat to Holger Rune in the Italian Open quarter-finals left him facing a three-match losing run against the two brightest stars of the next generation.

But best-of-five sets is a different game and Djokovic knows it. The reality is the Serbian has been breaking the will of the next generation for years at the grand slams. Just ask Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev, who have both lost all three matches they have played against Djokovic over best-of-five. In the past three years, only Nadal and Daniil Medvedev in the 2021 US Open final have beaten Djokovic at a grand slam.

Youth vs experience in Madrid last year

The hype and excitement around Alcaraz is different, however, partly fuelled by the parallels with Nadal and the symbolism of the 20-year-old potentially succeeding him as French Open champion. You only get one first grand-slam meeting, and Alcaraz facing Djokovic in the semi-finals at Roland Garros could in time be remembered as being as significant as Nadal beating Federer on his way to winning his maiden French Open title in 2005. It is certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated matches in recent memory.

“I would say since the draw came out, everyone was expecting that match, the semi-final against Novak,” Alcaraz said. “Myself as well. Since last year I really wanted to play again against Novak. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”

Even their answers matched-up.

“It’s the match that a lot of people want to see,” Djokovic said. “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.”

Separated by age, joined together at the top of the game, only one can be the best. Finally, after the long wait, the French Open will deliver some answers.

A version of this article was originally published on May 26

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