The highly anticipated French Open semi-final encounter between Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic ended in bitter anticlimax on Friday afternoon. After two intense, high-quality sets, Djokovic eased past a cramping Alcaraz 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 to return to the French Open final.
With little to separate the two best players in the world at one set all, Alcaraz began to struggle with cramps early in the third set. Although he refused to retire remaining on-court until the end, Alcaraz struggled to move properly and he was uncompetitive in the final sets.
As Djokovic contests his seventh French Open final, he will also compete for a men’s record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam singles title on Sunday as he looks to become the first man in the Open era to win each Grand Slam three times. If he wins, Djokovic will also recover the number one ranking from Alcaraz after losing it during the clay season.
Djokovic had begun the semi-final still with questions surrounding his form battling through a poor, injury-ravaged clay swing. Although his form had improved during his time in Paris, it was still unclear the exact extent it had. Against the most in-form player in the world, the shouts for a possible victory for the youngster were deafening.
But as has been the case so often in his career, the lofty occasion and form instantly provoked a higher level from Djokovic. Against most players, unleashing his enormous forehand has been enough for Alcaraz to force opponents back, open up the angles and dominate. But against Djokovic, the ball just comes back, constantly, with immaculate depth.
During the opening set, Djokovic’s supreme ability to soak up pace and pressure continually elicited errors from a frustrated Alcaraz and he triumphed in many of the delicate cat-and-mouse rallies around the net. Djokovic broke Alcaraz’s serve at 2-1, throwing down a spectacular drop shot while reading all of Alcaraz’s early attempts to insert his signature shot. Djokovic held on to the break to claim the set.
During the early stages of the second, there were numerous indications Alcaraz had finally settled in the swirling wind. He began to hold serve more easily and after Djokovic had successfully picked away at Alcaraz’s backhand throughout the opening set, the shot solidified as the set wore on. Then came a moment of outrageous skill as Alcaraz chased down a lob and, with his back to the court, flicked an angled forehand past Djokovic at the net.
As Alcaraz’s level improved, it was Djokovic who initially began to struggle physically. At 3-4 in the second set, Djokovic called for the trainer to massage his right elbow. It led to a tension-filled, chaotic end to the set as momentum rapidly swung from one to the other. Alcaraz broke serve to lead 5-3, only for Djokovic to break back with a gorgeous backhand winner down the line.
After Djokovic recovered from triple set point down at 4-5, 0-40, the Serb sprayed a backhand wide on break point against Alcaraz’s serve at 5-5. Both players paired outrageous winners with frustrating mistakes, and the fascinating frame ended with Alcaraz taking it 7-5 to level the match.
Just as the match had come alive, it was all but over. With the score 1-0 to Alcaraz and 40-30 on Djokovic’s serve, Alcaraz began to cramp badly in his right calf. He eventually called the trainer. Since cramp is deemed a fitness problem rather than an injury, and players are not allowed to receive medical timeouts for cramp, Alcaraz was docked the next point and the subsequent game as he received treatment.
Alcaraz emerged from the timeout down a break at 1-2 and he still could not run, drive with his legs on serve or load weight on his right leg. In a tense and awkward atmosphere, Djokovic quickly rolled through the third set, winning 11 consecutive games and the match. Alcaraz finally managed to hold serve and win a game while trailing 5-0 in the fourth set, but it merely delayed the end to one of the most miserable days of his young career.
It is difficult to think of a recent match, not involving two members of the big three, that has commanded so much hype. An intergenerational match between the elder in the final stretch of his career and, at last, after so many false starts, a worthy younger rival. For Alcaraz, who said he had wanted this meeting since the start of the tournament, perhaps the stress and excitement was too much.
With 16 years separating Djokovic and Alcaraz, the semi-final also represented the largest age gap between Grand Slam semi-finalists since Jim Courier defeated Jimmy Connors in the 1991 US Open semi-finals. In these matchups with huge age gaps, the younger player normally has the edge. But none of those previous involved Novak Djokovic. In the end, the 36-year-old physically outlasted the 20-year-old. – Guardian