Novak Djokovic relishing ‘biggest challenge’ ahead of Carlos Alcaraz clash

Novak Djokovic relishing ‘biggest challenge’ ahead of Carlos Alcaraz clash

Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz will meet for the first time at a grand slam in Paris on Friday but the Serbian expects a familiar feeling.

Alcaraz was still a baby the last time the French Open was played without his compatriot Rafael Nadal in the draw.

Now Spain has a new hero to cheer and Djokovic a new rival to spar with at the top of the game.

“He carries himself very well,” said the 36-year-old. “No doubt very nice guy on and off the court. Brings a lot of intensity on the court. Reminds me of someone from his country that plays with a left hand.”

Djokovic and Alcaraz met for the first – and only – time in Madrid last year, when the young Spaniard served notice that he was the present as well as the future of tennis by beating Nadal and Djokovic back to back.

Since then they have frustratingly missed each other, with Djokovic unable to play in the US Open, where Alcaraz won his first grand slam title, because of his vaccination status, while the 20-year-old was kept out of the Australian Open by injury.

Djokovic claimed his 22nd slam title in Melbourne and can set a new all-time men’s record by lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a third time.

“He deserves his success, no doubt,” said Djokovic of Alcaraz. “He’s working hard and he’s a very complete player already and only 20.

“So we played only once in Madrid last year, 7-6 in the third for him. Most of the tournaments this year we were not in the same draw but here we are.

“That’s the match that a lot of people want to see. It’s definitely the biggest challenge for me so far in the tournament. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. He’s definitely a guy to beat here. I’m looking forward to that.”

They both reached the semi-finals dropping only one set but, Alcaraz has been the more impressive, spending three-and-a-half hours less on court than Djokovic in his five matches so far.

The Serbian, who can reclaim the world number one ranking by winning the title, looked in trouble for a while against Karen Khachanov before playing a flawless second-set tie-break.

Djokovic’s ability to lock in at the most important moments is one of his greatest strengths and the Serbian’s extraordinary precision in the placement of his shots is unmatched.

If Djokovic is the old master, Alcaraz is the young impressionist, using the clay canvas to show off his talent and exuberance.

John McEnroe declared Alcaraz the most complete 20-year-old he has ever seen earlier in the tournament, and the audacity of his shots demonstrates the supreme confidence he has in his game.

He spoke of his excitement at playing Djokovic, saying: “Since the draw came out, everyone was expecting that match, the semi-final against Novak. Myself as well. I really want to play that match.

“Since last year I really wanted to play again against Novak. We both are playing a great level. I’m going to enjoy it.

“Of course, for me, it’s amazing to make history, playing a semi-final with such a legend like Novak. So it’s going to be a great match for me.

“I would say the match we played last year doesn’t affect too much this one. We both learned a lot from that match, so it’s going to be totally different, and let’s see what happens on Friday.”

The other semi-final pits fourth seed Casper Ruud against Alexander Zverev, who has found form again on the Paris clay 12 months after seriously injuring his ankle in a last-four clash with Nadal.

The German did not play another match until the beginning of this season but insisted there is no mental scar tissue as he looks to reach a second grand slam final.

“I think I’m at a stage now where I’m not thinking about the injury so much anymore,” he said. “I’m not thinking about what happened. I’m just happy to be back where I was last year, and I have another chance. Hopefully I can take it.”

Ruud made his first slam final here last year before losing heavily to Nadal and has shrugged off his own difficult start to the season.