Order meets chaos in the most consequential game of the year

Carlos Alcaraz (R) Novak Djokovic (L) - Novak Djokovic vs. Carlos Alcaraz: Order meets chaos in the most important game of the year
Carlos Alcaraz (R) Novak Djokovic (L) – Novak Djokovic vs. Carlos Alcaraz: Order meets chaos in the most important game of the year

Alain Prost versus Nigel Mansell. Steve Davis versus Alex Higgins. Germany against Brazil. In these great sporting rivalries, one part brings artistry, flair and unpredictability, while the other feeds on discipline and control.

Now tennis awaits its own classic example. Novak Djokovic (order) and Carlos Alcaraz (chaos) are set to meet in the most anticipated Grand Slam semi-final since Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met four years ago.

The appeal of their marquee showdown – which is set to take place on Friday afternoon – extends beyond the contrast in styles.

This meeting has great symbolic value, especially since the winner will be there to collect the Mousquetaires Cup after Sunday’s final.

If Alcaraz wins, he will have defeated one of the “Big Three” tennis legends the full distance (best of five sets) for the first time. It would be a rite of passage, a trial by battle, a moment that says “The king is dead, long live the king!”

But if Djokovic were to win, he would once again cement his aura of major tournament invincibility, while all but guaranteeing a field-record 23rd major that Rafael Nadal (who is surely stuck forever on 22) made his own. .

If the outcome seems unpredictable, it’s partly because we don’t have data. Djokovic – who turned 36 last month – and Alcaraz, 20, have taken turns holding the world No.1 ranking since last year’s US Open. Oddly, however, they didn’t play each other at all during this time.

Only one entry remains on the Djokovic-Alcaraz head-to-head table: a thrilling hat-trick, claimed by Alcaraz at the last breath, which dates back 13 months in the unique high-altitude conditions of Madrid last year. .

The past nine months have felt like the second act of a romantic comedy, in which the two parties – having initially sparked what the directors call “the cute encounter” – continue to find increasingly unlikely reasons not to reunite. .

While the delay was hugely frustrating, it also ratcheted up the tension for Friday’s showpiece. What happens here could shape the dynamics of men’s tennis for the next two seasons.

The bookmakers have Alcaraz as a favorite – a perhaps surprising choice, given that he has just 35 major tournament wins to his name, including a maiden title at last year’s US Open. Djokovic has 353.

But then Alcaraz is an alluring figure to watch. Its range of options is so wide that any computerized version of Carlos Alcaraz Tennis (there will be one soon, no doubt) will need an expansive, button-heavy controller.

His favorite shot is the drop shot, especially when played from the right side – and he makes it so sleek and simple that other players have started to emulate it. (ATP stats show ten percent more forehands have been fielded on the tour since Alcaraz emerged.)

Then, when he’s not dragging you towards the net, he pushes you towards the back fence with the most sparkling forehand since Nadal’s.

It’s a brutal combination, which completely baffled French Open 2021 finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas in Tuesday’s quarter-final. After dying weakly in 2hrs 12mins, Tsitsipas offered a lame excuse for taking too much melatonin – a sleep hormone – earlier in the day.

Earlier in the afternoon, Djokovic defeated Russian Karen Khachanov in four sets. Although it was an uneven performance, there was at least an hour in the middle of Djokovic’s 4-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory when he had the ball under control from distance.

Typically, this purple stain started with a tie-break, which he won 7-0. Djokovic’s greatest gift is knowing when to connect with full focus. During this tournament, he went through five tie-breaks without committing a single unforced error.

Hence the expectation of a clash of cultures on Friday, with the smiling magician going up against the most clinical executioner of this era or any other.

If the match ends quickly, it probably means that Alcaraz have overwhelmed Djokovic with their extraordinary attacking repertoire. If it lasts long, one can imagine Djokovic slowly smothering his young rival with tennis’ response to crocodile rolling.

It has now been at least a decade since people began to wonder about a possible “changing of the guard” in men’s tennis. Djokovic did more than anyone to make sure the citadel was never really breached.

But at Alcaraz he faces a hungry and fearless young challenger, who was described by John McEnroe last week as “the best 20-year-old I’ve ever seen”. So while Friday’s game may not be a final, it still seems to be the most important game of the year.

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