Djokovic and Alcaraz
Novak Djokovoc and Carlos Alcaraz will be facing each other in the French Open semifinals, only the second time in their careers. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: The towering Serb and the skyrocketing Spaniard have landed in the same town around the same time to play in the same tennis tournament 11 times in the 24 months since the younger one started causing hubbub. They’ve coexisted for days-long stretches in fickle draws in cities strewn from Astana, Kazakhstan, to New York, New York. They’ve lurked near each other while always a good bet to wind up on the same loud court before the same lucky crowd at the same starry time.

Somehow, they’ve played each other just once.

If that has cost us all some enthrallment, the 2023 French Open has stepped in to ameliorate. This whole fancy fortnight has gone barrelling toward Friday and a whoa semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz.

Most-awaited match

“I would say this match, everyone wants to watch,” Alcaraz said on Tuesday night.

“If it comes to that match,” Djokovic said earlier on Tuesday before it came to that match, “that’s the match that, you know, a lot of people want to see.”

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Karen Khachanov saw Novak Djokovic dig himself out during the loss in quarterfinals. Image Credit: AP

Extraordinary knack of solving problem

The two found their way to it through quarterfinals on Tuesday — Djokovic on a sunny afternoon against a formidable foe, Alcaraz on a clear evening against a slightly more formidable foe. Djokovic dug out his extraordinary knack for problem solving and played both an irreproachable tiebreaker and a gorgeous third set in his 4-6, 7-6 (7-0), 6-2, 6-4 besting of Karen Khachanov, a semifinalist at the 2022 US Open and the 2023 Australian Open. Alcaraz dug out his extraordinary knack for being extraordinary as he took a two-time Grand Slam finalist ranked No 5, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and routed him, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5), so that at times Tsitsipas looked like some part-time player who stopped by after his hair appointment.

So it’s, as they say, on — and the only sigh would be random tennis draws and their crummy habit of pitting No 1 seeds against No 3 seeds in semifinals rather than finals. It’s big enough that it makes a partial eclipse of Djokovic’s hunt for a men’s-record 23rd Grand Slam tournament title. It has the 20-year-old wonder who has held down the No 1 ranking for 25 weeks, including right now, and the 36-year-old wonder who has held the summit for 387 weeks, including a month ago. It has a guy 33-11 in major semifinals who often looks like it’s near impossible to get him to lose facing a guy 1-0 in major semifinals who looks like he can’t lose.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas says one has the legs to move around and the other prefers control in the clash between Alcaraz and Djokovic. Image Credit: AP

Tougher and tougher

How does it feel to oppose Djokovic? It has chameleon qualities, as knows Khachanov, 1-9 against Djokovic.

“It always feels like he finds a way how to make you into the trouble,” said Khachanov, ranked No 11 but bound for the top 10 come Monday. “He’s always there. He’s always pushing, and you know this. At one point, if you don’t cross him, you know, then it becomes tougher and tougher… He always tries to find a way.”

How does it feel to oppose Alcaraz? It has cartoon qualities, as knows Tsitsipas, 0-5 against Alcaraz and 2-11 against Djokovic.

Control and precesion

“Well, one has experience, the other has legs and moves like Speedy Gonzales, so you have that,” Tsitsipas said. “One can hit huge, super-big shots” — that’s Alcaraz — “and the other prefers control over anything else, probably control and precision, to apply pressure and just make the opponent move as much as possible.”

To find the lonely first round of this pairing, you have to scroll back to May 2022 in Madrid, the week Alcaraz turned 19 on a Thursday, beat Rafael Nadal in three sets on a Friday and played Djokovic on a Saturday. The Alcaraz-Djokovic semifinal wound its way to one of those scores that can make you tired just looking at the numbers — 6-7 (7-5), 7-5, 7-6 (7-5) — with Alcaraz crushing one last clean winner and smiling one more joyous toothy smile. “For somebody of his age to play so maturely and courageously is impressive,” Djokovic said then. “He deserved to win.”

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Novak Djokovic stretches to play a drop shot during the quarterfinals. Image Credit: AP

By now, 13 months later, Djokovic has won another Wimbledon (his seventh) and another Australian Open (his 10th), while Alcaraz has won a US Open (his first) in which Djokovic did not participate. Yet even as they’ve lost one set apiece here, Alcaraz has seemed more the steamroller. He has lost 40 games, Djokovic 59.

As this latest tennis comet tore through Tsitsipas with that damnedest blend of speed, power and touch that made blips of the first two sets — 34 minutes each — he just about floated. “I feel like every time I make the shot,” he said, “it’s going to go in.” He called it “one of the best matches of my career,” so when Tsitsipas lamented his use of “melatonin pills and naps before matches” and said, “I felt completely off, kind of like sleeping in a way,” it might have been a great athlete grasping for hope when presented with someone unreasonably good.

Beating the best

“Since last year,” Alcaraz said, “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.”

That could cause trouble, but then, no one can look troubled and then freed like Djokovic, who Tuesday played “probably the worst two sets I played so far in the tournament,” with 17 and 14 unforced errors, as if “part of me probably stayed in the locker room,” all while Khachanov kept gathering Djokovic’s respect. Then: “Kind of held my nerves in the tiebreak of the second, played a perfect tiebreak, really — amazing tiebreak.”

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Carlos Alcaraz will face the biggest test against Djokovic on Friday. Image Credit: AFP

Confidence boost

He called it “kind of the mentality of a lockdown. I’m present, I’m focused only on the next point, and I have to really think about it, you know, clearly about what I want to do against — obviously, depending on who you’re facing in a given opponent.” He said it lent a “confidence boost, and I started swinging through the ball a bit more, feeling more comfortable on the court.”

And then the third set merely presented, from Djokovic, some of the best tennis a witness could watch. Number of unforced errors: one.

It would be prudent to rediscover that level Friday, for now comes something else: “He carries himself very well,” Djokovic said of Alcaraz. “No doubt 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.”