Djokovic, Alcaraz each want to 'beat the best'

 - Courtney Walsh

There is mutual respect between the young world No.1 and 22-time Grand Slam champion

Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, entraînement, Roland-Garros 2023©Clément Mahoudeau / FFT

Every once in a while, a competitor emerges with a presence so powerful it is impossible not to be struck by their aura, no matter the age or experience of the person bearing witness.

The Roland-Garros semi-final between 22-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic and world No.1 Carlos Alcaraz on Friday is a meeting of awe-inspiring talents.

From the beginnings of their tennis careers, the excellence of their repertoire and their conviction and belief has made the wisest tour heads pause in disbelief.

It is tennis folklore that Toni Nadal, uncle and former coach of 14-time Roland-Garros champion Rafael Nadal, was stunned when setting eyes on Djokovic in 2005.

A month after his nephew won his first Roland-Garros title, Toni was walking through the back courts of Wimbledon and saw the Serb: alarm bells rang.

He rushed back to the locker room to declare, “Rafael. We have a problem.”

Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 2003 Roland-Garros champion who coaches Alcaraz, had a similar reaction when introduced to the most exciting newcomer in tennis since Djokovic.

Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Alcaraz, Roland-Garros 2023© Julien Crosnier/FFT

Ferrero, who defeated the Serb just the one time, in Croatia, a few weeks after Uncle Toni’s soothsaying experience at Wimbledon, was similarly inspired by the teenager from Murcia.

As well as Djokovic, the former world No.1 competed against Nadal and Roger Federer and said when offered the opportunity to coach Alcaraz, he wanted to enhance his natural flourish.

“I think he is ready to try to do big things in tennis,” Ferrero said.

The whole world is watching

Friday afternoon’s semi-final between the young champion and the enduring legend is a special moment for tennis.

This is the first time the 20-year-old reigning US Open winner and double Roland-Garros champion Djokovic have met in a major.

They shared a classic in Madrid last year with the No.1 seed edging the elder statesman in a deciding set tiebreak 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5).

The epic encounter whetted the appetite of everyone for more and the moment has almost arrived.

The assessment both rivals have used illustrates their mutual respect. Namely, to “be the best, you have to beat the best”.

Djokovic, 36, had safely booked a spot in the semi-final with a hard-fought victory over Karen Khachanov when he said it is a “match that a lot of people want to see”.

“It's definitely the biggest challenge for me so far in the tournament,” he said.

Alcaraz, who was outstanding in his defeat of Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets on Tuesday night, said “since the draw came out, everyone was expecting that match”.

“Myself as well. I really want to play that match,” he said.

The pivotal factor

It is a conundrum of the ages. Does youth trump experience? Or vice-versa?

Having seen Federer retire and witnessed the injury struggles of Nadal, Djokovic is mindful of his tennis mortality but still moves like a man many years younger.

Alcaraz has an answer for almost every question posed on court, but he is mindful this question of age or experience will be resolved only when match point has been decided.

“I want to think my youth [is the key],” he said.

“But it's going to be his 45th semi-final of a Grand Slam. This is going to be my second. I would say the experience is better at that point. But I'm not going to think about that.”

A statistical edge for Alcaraz

When weighing the young champion against the legend, it is scarcely surprising they rate highly in several metrics at Roland-Garros this year.

Djokovic is widely considered to have one of the most accomplished returns of serve in history. At Roland-Garros in 2023, he is breaking serve four times in every 10 games. It is a staggering strike rate. Yet heading into the semi-final, his opponent betters it.

Trying to hold serve against Alcaraz at Roland-Garros is akin to a coin toss. One game will be heads, the other tails. He is breaking serve at least once in every two service games.

>> READ: 'COMPLETE PLAYER' ALCARAZ POSTING IMPRESSIVE NUMBERS

In other key statistical areas, Alcaraz has been slightly more formidable from the forehand side and sits in the top 10 from a percentage breakdown for winners from that wing.

Djokovic has attacked the net 145 times and claimed the point on 97 occasions. Alcaraz has won the same number of points there, but has approached the net less frequently.

Not surprisingly, from the baseline they reign supreme, with Alcaraz marginally edging Djokovic when it comes to the overall percentage of points won.

Youth versus experience? With Ferrero's assessment that both players are "playing at an amazing level”, no matter what unfolds, Roland-Garros is set to witness a spectacular showdown between two champions.