PARIS (AP) — Two weeks ago, before the start of play at the French Open, the brackets were set for the tournament, and one possible semifinal matchup immediately demanded attention: No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, the Next Big Thing in men’s tennis, against No. 3 Novak Djokovic, the Current Big Thing in men’s tennis.
The heightened anticipation was not merely because it would be fascinating to see the two of them play at Roland Garros. It also would be fascinating to see them play each other, period: They’ve met only once, and it was 13 months ago, with Alcaraz coming out on top.
So get ready: Alcaraz and Djokovic finally will share the stage again on Friday in Court Philippe Chatrier, where they will compete for a spot in the championship match.
“Since the draw came out, everyone was expecting that match — the semifinal against Novak. Myself, as well,” Alcaraz said after completing his half of the bargain by outclassing Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (5) in the quarterfinals Tuesday night. “I really want to play that match.”
A moment later, Alcaraz observed: “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
That echoed, word for word, the phrase Djokovic uttered hours earlier as he looked ahead after beating Karen Khachanov 4-6, 7-6 (0), 6-2, 6-4 on Tuesday: “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.”
The other men’s pairing in the final four will include No. 22 Alexander Zverev, who advanced to that round in Paris for the third consecutive time by defeating Tomas Martin Etcheverry 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. Two years ago, Zverev lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets; last year, Zverev left the stadium in a wheelchair after tearing ligaments in his right ankle late in the second set against Rafael Nadal.
“It was the most difficult year of my life, for sure,” said Zverev, the runner-up at the 2020 U.S. Open. “I’m so happy to be back at this stage.”
He now takes on No. 4 Casper Ruud, a finalist at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows last season. Ruud took advantage of No. 6 Holger Rune’s terrible start to build a big lead and then held on to win 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 on Wednesday night.
Rune began about as poorly as possible and accumulated seven double-faults and 30 unforced errors in the hour or so that it took Ruud, a 24-year-old from Norway, to grab the initial two sets.
With the crowd repeatedly breaking into chants of “Hol-ger! Hol-ger!” — likely more out of a desire to see more tennis in return for their ticket cost than any affinity for the 20-year-old Dane — Rune briefly was back to better play. But Ruud broke to go up 3-1 in the fourth set and was on his way in a far less contentious meeting than his victory over Rune in the same round last year in Paris.
The only previous instance of Alcaraz vs. Djokovic came on May 7, 2022, on red clay at the Madrid Masters. Alcaraz had eliminated Nadal in the previous round, and his 6-7 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) victory over Djokovic made the Spaniard the first player to beat those two titans of the sport at the same clay tournament.
The tennis world already knew about Alcaraz, but that truly announced his arrival. He would go on to win his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in September and become the first teenager to finish a season at No. 1 in the rankings.
“He is ready to try to do big things (in) tennis. I don’t know if it’s going to be this tournament but, of course, I think he is ready,” said Alcaraz’s coach, 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero. “He dreams very big about what he can do, so I think it’s one of the most important things that he believes in himself and that he believes that he can go to the court and win against everybody.”
So why does everyone care so much about this particular match?
One player, Alcaraz, is seen as a star of the future.
The other, Djokovic, is still very much a star of the present: His championship at the Australian Open in January was his 10th in a span of 19 majors (Nadal collected six of those; three other players took one apiece, including Alcaraz).
Alcaraz is 20; Djokovic is 36.
In sports, it can help to be the one with the younger body.
Djokovic owns 22 Grand Slam titles, tied with Nadal for the most in the history of men’s tennis; Alcaraz owns one. Friday will mark Djokovic’s 45th appearance in a major semifinal and Alcaraz’s second.
In sports, it can help to be the one with the more extensive know-how.
“Well, one has experience; the other one has legs,” was Tsitsipas’ assessment. “One can hit huge, super-big shots, and the other one prefers control over anything else, probably control and precision, to apply pressure and just make the opponent move as much as possible.”
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