In the absence of an injured Rafael Nadal, Alcaraz was bidding to emulate his idol in becoming the new darling of Roland Garros, while Djokovic saw an opportunity to take the outright Grand Slam record with title No23.
Some 16 years apart in age, it saw the old and new of the sport battling it out this afternoon on Court Philippe Chatrier.
The talk in men’s tennis has long-been about the upcoming shift of power from the big three to the next generation. With Roger Federer retired and Nadal battling to make it back for a final season in 2024, never has that been more pertinent.
In Alcaraz, already the world No1, tennis has its new big star but Djokovic, despite not having played his best tennis throughout the past fortnight, still remains a formidable threat this season and beyond.
In contrast to Alcaraz v Djokovic, the later semi-final has caused barely a ripple, an unexpected meeting between two players in Casper Ruud and Alexander Zverev, both of whom had done very little this season to suggest they could make their way to the final stages in Paris.
Since the one bright spark of his 2023 — winning the Estoril Open — Ruud had lost five of his last 11 matches, looking every bit a shadow of the player who had reached last year’s French Open Final, as well as the finale of the US Open and the ATP World Tour Finals.
In Paris, it has all clicked back into place for him, and his opening two sets against Holger Rune in the preceding round, where he dropped just three games, was about as comfortable a performance as he has ever produced.
After the Rune victory, he described it as “the biggest win of the year for me, considering how the year has been”.
Of his drop-off in form prior to Paris, the Norwegian said: “I felt a little more pressure this year and I don’t feel like I have played my best tennis. Last year, I think I was playing every match freely and quite pressure-free.”
For his opponent, Paris has provided the scene of some of his best and worst moments on court. This is Zverev’s third straight French Open semi-final, but it was at this stage a year ago he badly turned his ankle, tore a number of ligaments and had to undergo surgery.
That left him out for seven months, followed by the opening months of this year still playing in pain. His showing at last month’s Geneva Open aside, there had been little in Zverev’s game to suggest he was on the cusp of a second career Grand Slam final.
There are similarities with Ruud beyond the drop in form: both have been talked of as future Slam winners and both are coached by their fathers.
Zverev appears now to have full confidence in his body for the first time this year, almost as if a return to Paris has finally put the demons of last year to rest.
After reaching his fourth Grand Slam semi-final, he said this one had been the sweetest yet, “looking at the history of last year a little bit”. But he added: “I’m happy to be in a semi-final of a Grand Slam any time. Hopefully, I have two more matches ahead and they’re not going to get easier.”
Of the horror injury last year, which saw him come off the court on a wheelchair, he said: “I don’t think about it anymore. I’m going on court to win matches. Ruud has been there [to the final] before. He was in the final here last year, so he knows what it means and what it takes.”
Both readily accept they are not today’s main draw, but both will have the belief they can upstage Alcaraz or Djokovic come Sunday’s final.