Eight days ago, 128 men began competing in singles at the French Open. Pretty much everyone has been focused on two of them.
Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic moved one step closer on Sunday to a potential semifinal showdown. They clinically disposed of overmatched opponents who often struggled to get points and games, much less sets, in back-to-back matches in front of a packed house on the Philippe Chatrier court, offering a look at what may be coming to that stadium before the week ends.
First, Djokovic took apart Juan Pablo Varillas, a 27-year-old Peruvian who has spent the last decade beating the back bushes of the sport. He had never won a match in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament before this year’s French Open and enjoyed a storybook ride through the first week. Djokovic ended all that in 1 hour, 57 minutes, expending what energy he needed in the 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win and not an ounce more.
“I know what my goal is here,” he said, and he did not have to explain what it was.
Then it was showtime, as Alcaraz, the 20-year-old world No. 1, took the court against Lorenzo Musetti, an Italian who is just 10 months older and has almost as flashy a game.
That one took 2:08 and had the identical score, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, for Alcaraz.
“My best match of the tournament so far,” he said.
For more than a year, Djokovic, the winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, and Alcaraz, the new king of the sport who won his first major title at the U.S. Open last year, have somehow been missing each other.
Sometimes one would lose before he got deep enough to face the other. Djokovic’s decision not to get vaccinated against Covid-19 forced him to miss the hard court tournaments in North America last summer and this spring. When Djokovic returned for the fall season and the Australian summer, Alcaraz was hurt. They could not connect.
Now they are six sets away. Alcaraz has to beat the fifth seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, on Tuesday. They have played four matches and Alcaraz has won them all.
Djokovic plays 11th-seeded Karen Khachanov of Russia. They have played nine times, with Djokovic winning eight.
That Alcaraz and Djokovic will face each other in a semifinal on Friday is not a certainty. Even the best players have bad days. Both Tsitsipas and Khachanov like playing on clay more than on any other surface. Djokovic has battled a sore elbow recently. Alcaraz has shown in the past eight months that he can be prone to injury. Upsets happen.
That said, on Sunday Djokovic and Alcaraz delivered performances — and self-assessments about them — that lent an air of near inevitability to a coming showdown.
Djokovic has long been the master of match management at Grand Slam tournaments, which require men to win seven best-of-five-set matches to claim the title and almost always separate the great from the very good. He starts playing at the level of energy expenditure, both physical and emotional, that he has decided he needs for the match, and dials it up only if the need arises.
So many of his winners Sunday, hit on angles that he saw and Varillas did not, may not have had the zip he displays against other opponents. They did not have to.
He was up by 4-0 before the match was roughly 20 minutes old against an opponent who had never before faced anyone at his level.
“With one ball you are being aggressive, and then with one ball he turns the coin the other way and then you are defending,” Varillas said.
Djokovic has been in this position before, one match away from the heavyweight duel with one of the biggest names in the sport, often Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Last year it was a quarterfinal match against Nadal, who also has 22 Grand Slam singles titles. The year before Nadal loomed in the semifinals. Those both came to fruition.
Djokovic did not pretend he has not been paying attention to what will come after what comes next.
“You always follow the top guys in your half, how they’re playing,” he said. “Of course you’re looking, you’re analyzing everyone’s game.”
Yes, he is focused on himself, he said, “but of course I do keep in mind what the others are doing.”
The “others,” of course, means Alcaraz, who, perhaps because of his youth, comes to his matches from a vantage point other than energy conservation, looking instead to create the greatest spectacle possible.
He relished the prospect of Sunday’s match with Musetti, his smile breaking out and his eyes lighting up as he spoke of playing another flashy upstart.
“Really good rallies, good shots between us, and of course it’s going to be a really fun match to watch, as well,” he said.
At times, that can be as important to him as winning. He almost never sees a drop shot he does not want to race to, a lob he does not think he can chase down so he can extend the rally with a shot between the legs, even if it means giving his opponent an easy overhead, which he will also try to chase. He is the one making the magic but also its biggest fan.
After his win on Sunday, he confessed that sometimes, after his best shots, he wants to look up at the big screen in the stadium and drool over the replay along with everyone else in the crowd and watching on television at home.
“A lot of times,” he said.
Six more sets. Then, he and Djokovic will get to put on the show Roland Garros has been waiting for.