Carlos Alcaraz arrived in Madrid last May still with plenty to prove. The swiftness with which he joined the elite had already become one of the defining stories of the season, but Alcaraz had still not faced the ultimate test, measuring up against Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
By the end of the week, he had ticked both off the list. Alcaraz finished the Madrid Open by becoming the first player to beat Nadal and Djokovic consecutively on clay and he departed with the title.
In the 13 months since, Alcaraz has risen higher still. He won his first grand slam at the US Open last year, the last one he played as he missed the Australian Open with injury. He became the ATP’s first teenage world No 1. He has four Masters 1000 titles.
At the same time Alcaraz established himself at the top, Djokovic re-established his own form having fallen from the No 1 ranking primarily because of his unvaccinated status freeing up his schedule. Djokovic has won the past two grand slam tournaments he entered and has seven titles since last May.
Alcaraz and Djokovic have been the best in the world against the field they have faced, but during this same period they managed to avoid each other. In their only meeting, the Madrid Open semi‑final last year, Alcaraz edged Djokovic to win 6-7 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5) after three hours and 36 minutes. This French Open marks the second time they have been in the same draw this year.
On Friday they will meet in the semi-final of the French Open, a true inter-generational clash and one of the most anticipated matches in recent years.
If form is the only factor, there would be little doubt about the favourite. Alcaraz has torn the field apart throughout the clay season, winning Barcelona and Madrid. In Paris, the top seed has raised the bar even higher. His destruction of Stefanos Tsitsipas, another top-four contender, on Tuesday night was stunning and further indication of how suffocating the combined force of his attacking and defensive capabilities are.
“[He] brings a lot of intensity on the court. Reminds me of someone from his country that plays with a left hand,” said Djokovic, smiling. “He deserves his success, no doubt. He’s working hard and he’s a very complete player already and only age 20.”
Beyond tennis, one of the important qualities behind Alcaraz’s success is how he seeks out the big moments rather than folding under pressure. After his quarter-final win, he made it abundantly clear he wanted to face Djokovic.
“Since the draw came out, everyone was expecting that match, the semi-final against Novak,” he said. “Myself as well. I really want to play that match. Since last year I really wanted to play again against Novak.”
As he contests his 12th French Open semi-final, Djokovic’s preparations were far less helpful. The third seed arrived here after toiling through one of his worst clay seasons, failing to reach a single semi-final and losing to players such as Dusan Lajovic and Lorenzo Musetti. He withdrew from Madrid because of his persistent elbow injury.
While he has conceded only one set in Paris, Djokovic has been more satisfied with the improvements he has made than his level. He is 36 and although he still moves like a breath of wind, with every passing year maintaining his physicality and form becomes more challenging.
Still, he has built a legendary career out of rising to the occasion and elevating his game when the moment, and the opponent, demands it.
As he has grown older, the difference between beating him over best of three sets and outlasting him over five has become increasingly stark. Many more players can win two sets these days, but Djokovic prides himself on how hard it is to win three.
For all of his strengths, Alcaraz can sometimes lose his way, making overzealous decisions and unforced errors. Although his serve has improved significantly this year, it can still be vulnerable, and he will now face one of the best returners in the world. Nobody is better suited to test Alcaraz’s shot tolerance, decision-making and consistency to their limits.
That such a meeting will take place on such an important occasion is fortunate but it also reflects their excellence. Just as it is unprecedented on the ATP for a 20-year-old to command a grand slam tournament as the top seed and favourite, it is rare for a 36-year-old to still be so great.
They are two players at completely different points of their careers briefly passing each other by, but on Friday they will enter the fray as equals.