Eight days ago, 128 men’s players began competing in singles at the French Open. Most people have his eye on two of them.
Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic were one step closer to a possible semi-final showdown on Sunday. They clinically disposed of opponents who often struggled to score points or games, let alone sets, in back-to-back matches in front of a packed crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier, and what was at that stadium. I had a premonition of what would happen. Week ends.
First, Djokovic dismantled Juan Pablo Bariras, a 27-year-old Peruvian who has been tearing through the undergrowth of the sport for the past decade. Although he hadn’t won a match in the main draw at a Grand Slam tournament until this year’s French Open, his first week was a story-like ride. Djokovic didn’t expend an ounce of the energy needed to win 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 and finished it all in 1 hour and 57 minutes.
“I know what my goal is here,” he said, and didn’t have to explain what it was.
Then it was showtime for the 20-year-old world No. 1 Alcaraz to take on Italian Lorenzo Musetti, who is only 10 months older and has an almost equally spectacular matchup.
The match lasted 2:08 and was the same score for Alcaraz, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
“It was the best match of the tournament so far,” he said.
For more than a year, the 22-time Grand Slam singles champion Djokovic and the sport’s new champion Alcaraz, who won his first major title at last year’s US Open, had somehow drifted apart.
In some cases, one would lose before it was deep enough to face the other. Djokovic was forced to miss the North American hard-court tournaments last summer and this spring due to his decision not to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Alcaraz was injured when Djokovic returned for the fall season and the Australian summer. Could not connect.
Now they are six sets apart. Alcaraz has to beat No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece on Tuesday. They played four games, all won by Alcaraz.
Djokovic will face 11th seed Karen Khachanov of Russia. The two have faced each other nine times, with Djokovic winning eight.
Alcaraz and Djokovic are not certain to meet in the semi-finals on Friday. Even the best players have bad days. Both Tsitsipas and Khachanov like playing clay more than any other surface. Djokovic has recently been battling elbow pain. Alcaraz has shown over the past eight months that he is injury prone. An upset ensues.
That said, on Sunday Djokovic and Alcaraz delivered performances and self-assessments about themselves that give an almost inevitable feel to the upcoming showdown.
Djokovic has long been a master of match management in Grand Slam tournaments, requiring the men to win seven matches of five sets to clinch the title, often separating the strong from the strong. He starts playing at the level of physical and mental energy expenditure he deems necessary for the game and increases it only when the need arises.
So many of Sunday’s winners hit at angles he saw, but Bariras didn’t, so it’s possible he didn’t have the kind of zip he shows against other opponents. It didn’t need to.
By the time he was about 20 minutes into the game against someone he had never played against a player of his level before, he was leading 4-0.
“One ball puts you on the offensive, but one ball he flips the coin the other way and you go on the defensive,” Bariras said.
Djokovic has held the position before and is one fight away from a heavyweight showdown with one of the sport’s biggest names, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Last year, he was in the quarterfinals against fellow 22-time Grand Slam singles champion Nadal. The year before Nadal reached the semi-finals. Both have come to fruition.
Djokovic didn’t pretend not to pay attention to what happened next.
“We’re always chasing how our top players are playing,” he said. “Of course, I watch and analyze everyone’s games.”
Yes, he’s focused on himself, he said. “But of course I have in mind what other people are doing.”
“Other” means, of course, Alcaraz. Perhaps because of his youth, he approaches the game from a non-conserving point of view, instead seeking to create the best possible spectacle.
He smiled and his eyes lit up as he enjoyed the prospect of Sunday’s match with Musetti and talked about playing with a flamboyant upstart.
“It’s going to be a really good rally, a good shot between us and of course a really fun match to watch,” he said.
Sometimes it’s as important to him as winning. He’s rarely seen a drop shot he doesn’t want to race against or a lob he thinks he can’t chase, so he extends rallies with shots between his legs, even if it means giving his opponent an easy overhead. can. He will try to follow you too. He’s the one who creates magic, but he’s also its biggest fan.
After Sunday’s win, he confessed that sometimes after his best shot, he wants to look up at the stadium’s big screen and drool over replays with the crowd and everyone else watching on TV at home.
“Many times,” he said.
6 more sets. And he and Djokovic will put on the show Roland Garros has been waiting for.