Match Preview

SF Preview: Alcaraz vs. Djokovic In Clash For The Ages

Competitors meet for second time, seeking Roland Garros final
June 08, 2023
Carlos Alcaraz won his lone previous ATP Head2Head meeting with Novak Djokovic last season in Madrid.
Carlos Alcaraz won his lone previous ATP Head2Head meeting with Novak Djokovic last season in Madrid. By Arthur Kapetanakis

The potential matchup everyone had circled from the start of Roland Garros is now a reality. One year after a three-set epic in their first meeting in Madrid, Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic will contest their second ATP Head2Head showdown in the Paris semi-finals.

The two stars have waged a neck-and-neck battle in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings this season, trading the top spot four times in 2023. Now this generational battle will play out on Court Philippe-Chatrier, with World No. 1 Alcaraz knowing a Friday victory would ensure he remains at the pinnacle of the men's game following the tournament.

The 20-year-old Spaniard is seeking his first Roland Garros final and his second major title, which would make it two trophies in as many Grand Slam appearances for the reigning US Open champion, who missed the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Djokovic, 36, is bidding for a record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam men's singles crown — an achievement that would also see him return to World No. 1. The Serbian is also attempting to advance to his seventh final in his past eight majors as he chases a sixth title in that stretch.

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One year on from Alcaraz's thrilling 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5) win against Djokovic in Madrid — a clay-court event with notably quicker conditions than Roland Garros — how will this semi-final meeting play out? Before we turn to the competitors themselves, let's hear how Stefanos Tsitsipas broke it down after his quarter-final defeat to the Spaniard.

"Well, one [Djokovic] has experience; the other one [Alcaraz] has legs and moves like Speedy Gonzales, so you have that," he assessed. "[Alcaraz] can hit huge, super-big shots; and [Djokovic] prefers control over anything else, probably control and precision, to apply pressure and just make the opponent move as much as possible."

Tsitsipas has fallen victim to both players this season, losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open final and to Alcaraz in both Barcelona and Paris. But Alcaraz's domination of the Greek in Tuesday's quarter-final laid down a marker, with the 20-year-old hitting new heights in building a 6-2, 6-1, 5-2 lead. While Tsitsipas battled back to force a tie-break in the final set, Alcaraz left the court with sky-high confidence.

"I think my level is getting better every time that I'm winning," he said. "I think today was such a great level. I played really, really well. I would say one of my best matches of my career."

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It's a bold statement, even if Alcaraz's ATP Tour career is still in its infancy, with just two-and-a-half years as a regular on the circuit. It's a stark contrast to Djokovic, who turned pro in 2003. That disparity, in addition to the differences in their playing styles, further fuels the matchup's intrigue.

So what's more important: Alcaraz's youth or Djokovic's experience?

"I want to think my youth," the 20-year-old said with a smile. "But it's going to be his 45th semi-final of a Grand Slam; this is gonna be my second. I would say the experience is better at that point, but I'm not going to think about that."

While Alcaraz enters the semis in peak form, on the back of straight-sets wins against Denis Shapovalov, Lorenzo Musetti and Tsitsipas, Djokovic will present a fresh set of problems — not least because of his rock-solid two-handed backhand, a departure from the one-handers Alcaraz feasted on in his previous three outings.

Djokovic also has an innate ability to perform his best in the biggest moments, most recently evidenced by his 5-0 tie-break record this fortnight, achieved without committing a single unforced error.

The Serbian has dropped just one set this tournament, the opener in his quarter-final against an inspired Karen Khachanov. But a 7/0 second-set tie-break helped him turn the match around. Djokovic said the first two sets against Khachanov were his worst of the tournament, and he knows there may be no escape from a repeat performance against Alcaraz.

"If it comes to that match, that's the match that a lot of people want to see," Djokovic said, before Alcaraz defeated Tsitsipas. "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."

Alcaraz shared similar sentiments about Djokovic, word-for-word in part: "Since last year I really wanted to play again against Novak. We both are playing a great level, and as I said before, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. So I'm really looking for that match. I'm going to enjoy it."

Alcaraz also said he was excited to play a historic semi-final against "a legend like Novak". But at Roland Garros, the history and legend of Rafael Nadal always looms large, even if the Spaniard is not competing this year. To that end, Djokovic paid Alcaraz perhaps the biggest compliment he could have shared.

"[Alcaraz] carries himself very well. No doubt a very nice guy on and off the court. Brings a lot of intensity on the court. Reminds me of someone from his country that plays with a left hand," Djokovic said with a smile, referencing the 14-time Roland Garros champ. "He deserves his success, no doubt. He's working hard, and he's a very complete player already and only age 20."

A win for Alcaraz in this generational challenge would not only deny Djokovic sole possession of the Grand Slam record — it could also signal that the dominance of the Big 3 is finally cracking.

When Tsitsipas was asked who he thought would win the matchup, he steered clear of a prediction but shared his rooting interest: "I root for the young kids," he said, despite the defeat to Alcaraz.

The fan-favourite Spaniard can likely count on the support of the Chatrier crowd as well, which could give him a crucial boost in a match of fine margins. But for Djokovic, who often plays his best tennis when the fans are behind his opponent, that may be just how he likes it.

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