A preview of the big tennis match between Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic in Paris
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For decades, tennis fans have been used to seeing a top-ranked Spaniard own the clay courts of the French Open, but this year, with Rafael Nadal out, it's 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz charging through to a semifinal match, hoping to win his second major. His opponent is none other than one of the top-three most dominant players in recent years, Novak Djokovic. Djokovic is hoping to turn tomorrow's game into a win so he can play for a record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam championship. Joining us now is Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated writer and Tennis Channel analyst. He joins us from the tournament in Paris. Welcome back.
JON WERTHEIM: Thank you. How are you?
CHANG: All right. So, of course, fans are seeing this big game tomorrow as kind of like a generational shift, right? Like, if this 20-year-old can beat the 36-year-old and keep him from moving on to the finals - and let's be clear, this isn't just hopeful thinking. I mean, Alcaraz did beat Djokovic the one time the two of them met, right?
WERTHEIM: He did, and that was recently, and Alcaraz is not only the top seed and the No. 1 ranked player, but Alcaraz is the oddsmakers' favorite, which sounds insane when you're talking about a guy - and Djokovic, who not only has won 22 majors, but also won the most recent major. He's won this tournament twice, and the guy who won it 14 times and foiled him many times is not in the draw. So, yeah, the recency effect is alive and well, but as of now, as we speak, Alcaraz, ironically enough, is the favorite.
CHANG: OK, so there's no doubt that tomorrow's game is the game of the tournament, on the men's side at least, yeah?
WERTHEIM: Tennis being into irony - wouldn't you know it? - the other semifinals might well go on to win. But, no, I mean, I think everyone just sort of circled this as the de facto final. And both of the players did their part, winning the required five matches, but also doing so in such a just dazzling fashion. And they've won the last two majors - Alcaraz winning the U.S. Open and Djokovic winning in Australia earlier this year. I mean, this really is sort of the match to watch, and as you say, there really is history at stake. This really does feel like a hinge point - pivot moment for tennis.
CHANG: Well, OK. When it comes to Alcaraz and Djokovic, what would you say are the strengths and the weaknesses that you see in each man's game as they're about to face each other?
WERTHEIM: The weaknesses are hard to come by.
WERTHEIM: No, I mean, Alcaraz is this 20-year-old kid. He's this muscular athlete. He just absolutely slugs the ball, and he has the virtue and the good fortune of being 20 years old. And Djokovic is the sort of classic youth-versus-experience, and Djokovic has been here many times. And he's - I describe him to non-tennis fans as sort of the Zava character of "Ted Lasso." He's sort of just this speaker - this just mythical player - and his mental strength, which is not always as obvious to the eye as slugging 100-mile-an-hour shots. But Djokovic's mental strength is just like nothing I've seen - not just in tennis. I mean, I put him in the elite athletes in history as far as meeting the moment and being a clutch player and sort of bringing his best when the situation requires it.
CHANG: Well, OK. You're in Paris right now, Jon. Like, is the whole place just abuzz with tomorrow's game coming up?
WERTHEIM: Yeah. There are no guarantees when you have 128 players and all those permutations, but when the draw was made more than two weeks ago, everybody sort of took out their highlighters, and this was the match to watch.
WERTHEIM: And then 14 days later, here it is. So, yeah, everyone's focused on this match.
CHANG: That was Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated and the Tennis Channel, joining us from the tournament in Paris. Thank you so much.
WERTHEIM: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.