The most exasperating element of men’s tennis over the past six months has been that, curiously, the two best players in the world have rarely appeared at the same tournament.
While Novak Djokovic was barred from entering the US to compete in New York last summer, Carlos Alcaraz found himself injured and out of contention at the Australian Open this year. Djokovic was again absent at the Sunshine Double, during which Alcaraz took the Indian Wells title.
During this time, the world No. 1 ranking has swung back and forth between the established 22-time Grand Slam champion and the upcoming youngster who has recently claimed his first major title and is widely regarded as the golden future of the sport.
He is definitely the player to beat here, the favourite, just like we said before the tournament.
Djokovic on Alcaraz
Alcaraz and Djokovic each won one of the last two Grand Slams at which the other was absent. But on Friday, at this year’s Roland-Garros, something has to give.
Roland-Garros finally offers the chance for world’s best to meet
The two best players on the planet right now – by a considerable distance – will face off in a best-of-five format Grand Slam match for the very first time.
It has been billed as the most highly-anticipated match of the season. In truth, it may be even more significant than that.
Should Alcaraz fulfil his wildly exciting potential over the next decade and more, then tennis really could be about to witness an intergenerational clash of – arguably – the two greatest players to take to a tennis court.
All this is largely hypothetical, and debatable, of course. But that is not to say it is outlandish. The stakes of this match, and how it may dictate the course of tennis history, are difficult to overstate.
It appears the size and significance of this match has not been lost on Novak Djokovic either.
“I mean, semis of a Slam, I an going to fight until the last drop of sweat and last ounce of energy. I don’t know how many opportunities to fight for big titles I will have, so I am cherishing every opportunity and see this as a big chance to win the trophy.”
Djokovic coy on rivalry comparisons ahead of Roland-Garros semi-final
Interestingly, however, the Serb stopped short of comparing the match to those many wonderful encounters he has shared with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the past – largely out of respect for their achievements more than anything else.
“Alcaraz is a player that draws a lot of attention, but Nadal and Federer rivalries… I don’t know if Alcaraz and I even have a rivalry, so that can’t be compared. He has a lot of digging to do to reach Nadal’s and Federer’s heights, but he’s on the right path.”
But, make no mistake, despite not being overly emphatic about the young Spaniard’s abilities, the size of the challenge that awaits the 22-time Grand Slam champion on Friday will not have been lost on Djokovic.
“He is the number one player in the world, playing at an elite level, with mature behaviour on the court – he is positive, encourages himself all the time.
“All I can say is ‘well done’ to him and his team for everything they have accomplished so far. He is definitely the player to beat here, the favourite, just like we said before the tournament.
“Grand Slam semi-final is a big event, big match, I don’t know whether my experience will help, but I will be ready for possibly the longest match of the tournament.”
Roland-Garros encounter one for the record books
The fact that Djokovic acknowledges that this match will likely be the longest of the tournament, whoever wins, in testament to the titanic nature of the battle that lies in store.
With very little precedent to draw on, the outcome of this match is almost impossible to predict.
Djokovic and Alcaraz have only met once before, at the semi-finals of the Madrid Open in 2022. It was of staggeringly high quality, with the young Spaniard just clinching it on a tiebreak in the decider.
Whatever the outcome on Friday, this match is to be earmarked for the history books.
The result will have reverberations not only for the rest of this season, but for the overarching narratives of both men’s careers.
It is one to be savoured, and one to relish.