Djokovic vs Alcaraz: A year’s wait, changing narratives
The 22-time Grand Slam champion acknowledges that the sensational Spaniard, who he faces in the French Open semi-finals, is the man to beat in the game.
Of the various superlatives sprinkled by Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic to wax eloquent about each other through their unique oratory skills, an overlapping sentence, repeated almost word for word, in describing their next battle stood out.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
From the last time they played each other until now, that “best” mantle — and the ranking —has changed hands between the two without them crossing paths on court even once. That is why Friday’s Grand Slam semi-final between a 20-year-old Spaniard and a 36-year-old Serb in the French capital is the most anticipated tennis match of this season.
Not only because it could potentially signal a tectonic shift in the generational battle of men’s tennis or maintain status quo, but also because it arrives after over a year of cat-and-mouse misses and changing storylines of the two protagonists.
The only time Djokovic and Alcaraz stood across the net for a competitive match was 13 months ago. In that ATP Masters semi-final that went on for three hours and 36 minutes on the clay courts of Madrid, Alcaraz rallied from a set down to beat Djokovic 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5). Not many can do that against the 22-time Grand Slam champion, let alone a teen. A tap on the head and cheek from Djokovic therefore complemented a hug at the net.
“The match we played last year doesn't affect this one too much,” Alcaraz said of Madrid 2022 looking at Paris 2023 on Tuesday night. “It was one year ago; both of us learnt a lot from that match. It’s going to be totally different.”
So was the narrative around them back then.
Fresh off celebrating his 19th birthday during that tournament in May 2022, Alcaraz wrote global headlines as the kid who swept through Rafael Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back en route to the Madrid title. That was to be just the beginning of the cruise.
METEORIC RISEA breakthrough Grand Slam crown in New York, a breathtaking rise to the top of the world rankings and a bulldozing four-title 2023 run later, Alcaraz has evolved from being star-in-the-making to the star of the show. The top seed sure was in his 6-2, 6-1, 7-6(5) dismantling of Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2021 French Open and 2023 Australian Open finalist no less, in the French Open quarter-final in Tuesday’s night session. For two sets and much of the third, Alcaraz gave the fifth-ranked Greek no room to breathe, bullying him into submission playing “one of the best matches of my career” and every bit like a world No. 1.
That was Djokovic in Madrid last year, also playing every bit like a world No. 1 in a season in which he won five titles (including Wimbledon) but lost the top spot for reasons beyond tennis. He earned that back — and the record-tying Slam No. 22 — at the Australian Open this year before a few months of indifferent form and injury troubles dragged down his ranking and seeding for the French Open to three. Djokovic has not quite been as ruthless in his five matches at Roland Garros although, like Alcaraz, the maestro of five-setters has also dropped just one set so far.
That the two best players over the last year haven’t stepped on court together in all that while has been due to a combination of factors: injuries (Alcaraz, 2023 Australian Open), vaccine status (Djokovic, 2022 US Open and this year’s US hard court swing), early exits and draw dynamics.
More than a year on, as they reunite, the boy from Madrid is now the beast of Paris, and the usually hunted now the hunter.
“It’s a match that a lot of people want to see. It’s the biggest challenge for me so far in the tournament,” Djokovic said of Alcaraz. “He is definitely the guy to beat here.”