French Open 2023: Will the Djokovic-Alcaraz rivalry finally kick into gear in Paris?

In a constant tussle for the top ranking, the Serb and the Spaniard are yet to meet on the court this year

Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz have only played once, Alcaraz winning their match in the 2022 Madrid Masters quarter-finals. AP
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Tennis is a sport defined by its rivalries. It's no coincidence that the two greatest male players in history, at least by metric of Grand Slam titles, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, have played each other an Open era record 59 times.

Throw in Roger Federer's duels with his fellow 'Big Three' members and the Swiss is involved in the second-most active rivalry with Djokovic (50) and the third, against Nadal (40).

This season, a new rivalry is taking shape which could define the next couple of years of men's tennis as Djokovic – who else? – and Carlos Alcaraz, the young Spanish sensation, tussle for the top ranking.

Yet, the two most dominant players on the ATP Tour have faced each other a grand total of zero times this year, and only once in their careers, Alcaraz taking the win in a nail-bitingly close quarter-final at the 2022 Madrid Masters.

Then, Alcaraz was the world No 9 and while he was on the fast-track to the summit, he was still among a group of contenders striving to challenge Djokovic's dominance. Now that the Spaniard and the Serb are the two top dogs, the tennis world is yearning to watch them battle on the court and not just in the rankings.

Much of their lack of face-to-face action this season is circumstantial. Alcaraz was sidelined with a hamstring injury at the start of the year as Djokovic waltzed to a record-extending 11th Australian Open title to regain the top ranking from Alcaraz.

Djokovic then made his way to the UAE for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, while Alcaraz opted to regain his fitness on the South American clay courts.

From there, the tour made its way to the United States for the 'sunshine double' in California and Miami, where Djokovic was absent because of Covid-related entry regulations.

Alcaraz, who last September became the youngest player to top the rankings in ATP history, took his chance by winning Indian Wells and wresting back the world No 1 spot, although his inability to retain his Miami title the following week saw Djokovic quickly reclaim the status.

Djokovic and Alcaraz remained apart again when the season progressed to the European clay court swing, Djokovic competing in Monte Carlo and Bosnia, Alcaraz triumphant in Barcelona after skipping Monte Carlo with injury.

So to Madrid, where both players were due to compete. Instead, it was Djokovic's turn to withdraw with injury. Alcaraz went on to win his fifth title of the season and move to the brink of becoming world No 1 once again.

Surely, then, in Rome, these two would finally come to blows? Nope. Alcaraz, back at the top simply by playing one match in the Italian capital, fell to a shock defeat in the second round. Djokovic was eliminated in the quarter-finals, and to provide a fresh twist, Daniil Medvedev has replaced the Serb as the world No 2 after winning his first clay-court title and fifth overall this year.

Daniil Medvedev's Italian Open triumph has added a new twist to the rankings rivalry. AFP

Now the focus turns to Roland Garros and the second major of the season. Djokovic could face Alcaraz in the semi-finals of the French Open after both players were placed in the same half of the draw on Thursday.

The tennis world wants and needs to see this rivalry the way it's meant to be contested: out on the court, and with Nadal officially out of Roland Garros, the chances of both players advancing deep enough to clash have been given a significant boost.

Time is hardly on their side, either. While the 'Big Three' rivalry was played out over 15-plus years, Djokovic and Alcaraz are on opposite sides of their career. Even taking into account the 36-year-old Serb's super-human athleticism, he reasonably has a handful of years left at the top, while 20-year-old Alcaraz is just getting started.

Hopefully, Roland Garros can kickstart this enticing rivalry before it's too late.

Updated: May 26, 2023, 8:00 AM