After battling 59 encounters with Rafael Nadal during 16 years of epic rivalry, Novak Djokovic takes on the heir apparent to Spanish legend Carlos Alcaraz at Roland Garros in a match of defining potential.
Djokovic will play a 45th Grand Slam semi-final on Friday; for Alcaraz, it will only be his second.
With Roger Federer retired and Nadal nursing a hip injury until next year, the 36-year-old Djokovic has a responsibility to uphold the legacy of the ‘Big Three’.
“It’s definitely the biggest challenge for me,” said Djokovic, chasing a third French Open title and a men’s record 23rd Slam, which would break the tie he currently shares. with Nadal.
Friday’s centerpiece will be the first time Djokovic and Alcaraz have met in a Grand Slam and only the second time in their careers.
Alcaraz, then 19, beat the Serbian after a set in the semi-finals of the Madrid Open last year, a day after knocking out Nadal on the faster and higher courts in the Spanish capital.
He then predicted that “the sky is the limit” and he wasn’t wrong, winning a first Grand Slam title at the US Open and becoming the world’s youngest number one.
“He behaves very well. Brings a lot of intensity on the pitch. It reminds me of someone from his country who plays with his left hand,” Djokovic said of a player 16 years his junior but who owns already Nadal’s competitive DNA. .
Djokovic has 90 career victories at Roland Garros and is playing in his 11th semi-final.
– ‘Guy to beat’ –
When he made his tournament debut in 2005, Alcaraz was just two years old but despite the age gap, Djokovic is keen to go up against the Spaniard for the first time in a major tournament.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. He’s definitely a guy to beat here. I can’t wait to be there,” added Djokovic, chasing a seventh final in the last eight majors. in which he played.
Alcaraz fell in the quarter-finals in Paris 12 months ago while Djokovic’s run ended in the semi-finals at the hands of Nadal.
The Spaniard then lost in the round of 16 at Wimbledon where Djokovic was crowned champion for the seventh time.
When Alacaraz won his first Grand Slam in New York in September, the Serb was stuck at home, banned from entering the United States due to his refusal to get vaccinated.
Hopes that they would meet at the Australian Open, when Djokovic won a 10th title in Melbourne, were dashed when Alcaraz pulled out with a leg injury.
“Since the draw everyone was expecting this semi-final against Novak, me too. Since last year I really wanted to play against Novak again,” said Alcaraz.
“We’re both playing at a great level. It’s his 45th Grand Slam semi-final, it will be my second. I would say his experience is better, but I’m not going to think about it.”
Greek world number five Stefanos Tsitsipas has had a close view of both men this year.
– ‘Speedy González’ –
He lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open final and was swept from Roland Garros by Alcaraz in straight sets in the quarter-finals.
“Djokovic has experience; Alcaraz has legs and moves like Speedy Gonzalez,” said Tsitsipas.
“Alcaraz can hit huge, really big shots and Djokovic prefers control over anything else, probably control and precision, to apply pressure and move the opponent as much as possible.”
There’s also Djokovic’s famous iron will – in the five tiebreakers he’s played in Paris this year, he hasn’t committed a single unforced error.
The clash between Djokovic and Alcaraz eclipsed Friday’s other semi-final between 2022 runner-up Casper Ruud and Olympic champion Alexander Zverev who is in the last four for a third consecutive year.
Twelve months ago, Zverev suffered an ankle ligament injury in his semi-final against Nadal.
“It was the hardest year of my life,” said the 26-year-old German.
“I love playing tennis and sport and competition have been taken away from me.”
Zverev leads Ruud 2-1 in their head-to-head encounters, but they have never met on clay.
This could prove significant as world number four Ruud has the best surface record since 2020 with 86 wins.