With sweat still trickling from his brow and adrenaline still coursing through his body, Stefanos Tsitsipas walked off the court the other day, victorious, at Roland Garros. Realizing that his next opponent would be Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, Tsitsipas declared, “The clash we’ve all been waiting for!”
Here was the No. 5 player in the world indicating that even he was in on the joke, a tacit acknowledgment that he was just a signpost on the way to an inevitable destination.
Ever since the 2023 French Open draw was released two weeks ago, the possibility of a semifinal collision between Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic was not just breathlessly anticipated but declared the event’s de facto final. And the two players haven’t just done their part, winning the required five matches apiece; they have added to the hype, discharging their duties with top-flight tennis that emphasizes their strengths.
And now here we are. Friday afternoon will feature the matchup of the tournament (year?). It’s the showdown between the winners of the previous two majors; the two stars who will be ranked No.1 and No.2 after this event; the two best clay-courters in the sport not named Rafael Nadal.
And still, that manages to shortchange all that is at stake. This encounter is generational, the kind of match that might well be a hinge point for the sport. Having just turned 20, Alcaraz—closer in age to Djokovic’s kids than to Djokovic himself—has emerged as tennis’ next star. His ascent has been rapid enough to make one’s stomach lurch and ears pop. He plays muscular, comic book tennis, slugging the ball with unprecedented force, free of obvious weakness. In the rare times he’s on the defensive, his athleticism allows him to reach balls that would be winners against other players.
All of this yields stretches when he is simply unplayable. In the fourth round, he faced another ascendant young player, Lorenzo Musetti of Italy. Alcaraz existed on an entirely different plane and won 6–3, 6–2, 6–2. Tuesday night against Tsitsipas—again, the No. 5 player on the planet—Alcaraz took batting practice and won 6–2, 6–1, 7–6.
As for Djokovic, he’s been, well … Djokovic. Aiming for a third French Open title and, more critically, 23rd major putting him in the all-time lead (perhaps for good), he has embraced his career-long propensity for simplifying complicated situations, for winning with precision but also clutch play. Mental strength can be hard to quantify. But consider this: Djokovic has 47 points in tiebreakers here. In those crucial interregnums, he has yet to commit an unforced error.
On some level, Friday’s match is about X’s and O’s. Who will serve better, win the backhand-to-backhand rallies and take more chances on second serves (both delivering them and returning them)? But really this is about the macro. Who will handle the situation with superior poise? And who will rise to the stakes?
If Alcaraz wins, he will move to 2–0 against Djokovic, having beaten him last year in Madrid. He will have proven his mettle in a best-of-five match against a tennis colossus. He will move to No.1. He will cement the perception that, in this transitional tournament, he is the tennis heir, Federer/Nadal/Djokovic rolled into one.
If Djokovic wins? He will have thwarted this challenge, his experience likely trumping youth, his steely and yet agile mind overriding young legs and a live arm. He will move within a match of winning his 23rd major, which would put him alone atop the all-time heap, a possibility that’s gone largely, perplexingly quiet this event.
Predicting outcomes a proceed-at-your-own risk game. We’ll take a pass. Except to say this semifinal could loom large in the history of the sport.