Djokovic and Alcaraz close in on French Open semi-final showdown

Djokovic and Alcaraz close in on French Open semi-final showdown

Ukraine-Belarus women's quarter final will feature political tension

Novak Djokovic is playing in his 55th Grand Slam quarter-final. (Photo: AFP)
Novak Djokovic is playing in his 55th Grand Slam quarter-final. (Photo: AFP)

PARIS: Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz have a chance on Tuesday to set up a blockbuster French Open semi-final while Ukraine's Elina Svitolina tackles Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in a politically charged tussle where the only guarantee will be the absence of a handshake at the end.

Djokovic is in familiar territory after making the last eight in Paris for a record 17th time — his 14th consecutive quarter-final appearance here.

The 36-year-old Serb, chasing a third French Open crown and record 23rd men's Grand Slam singles title, looks to be rounding into form at the right time after an underwhelming clay season.

His lone loss in nine matches against Tuesday's opponent Karen Khachanov came in the 2018 Paris Masters final, with Djokovic dispatching the Russian in three sets in their only Roland Garros clash three years ago.

The 27-year-old Khachanov is in his third straight Grand Slam quarter-final after semi-final runs at last year's US Open and the Australian Open in January.

Djokovic, however, is a conundrum he has struggled to solve. "You need to play really good chess to beat him," said Khachanov.

World number one Alcaraz has so far lived up to his billing as the tournament favourite but his quarter-final rival Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 2021 runner-up, represents his stiffest challenge yet.

The Spaniard has won all four past meetings — two of which have been on clay, most recently triumphing in the Barcelona Open final in April.

"We have played great matches. I won every match that we have played. But it doesn't mean that I'm going to win every match that we play," said Alcaraz.

Tsitsipas also reached this year's Australian Open final, losing to Djokovic, and has been steady rather than spectacular in 2023.

He is yet to win a title this season but has made serene progress through the draw in Paris, dropping just the one set in his opening round.

"Right now he's one of the biggest obstacles and challenges for any player to compete against," Tsitsipas said of Alcaraz. "Rivalries like this, they are the toughest thing you can get in our sport."

Belarus v Ukraine

The war in Ukraine will come into sharp focus again Tuesday as Sabalenka takes on Svitolina, the former world number three who is playing her first Grand Slam since becoming a mother.

Sabalenka's first round opponent, Ukraine's Marta Kostyuk, was booed for not shaking hands in protest over the war in which Belarus is a close ally of Russia.

Svitolina, who defeated Russia's Daria Kasatkina in the last 16, has already said she will maintain the position of all Ukraine players in refusing to shake hands with Russian and Belarusian opponents.

Sabalenka refused to carry out media commitments after her past two matches, claiming she does not "feel safe" having faced a barrage of questions over her stance on the war and her links to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Svitolina only returned to the tour in April following a year away from the sport on maternity leave, but triumphed in Strasbourg last month and is on a nine-match winning run.

"Right now, I don't have that pressure that I used to have before," said Svitolina.

"No one expects that I'm going to come into Roland Garros and make quarter-final at the beginning of the tournament. I don't think many people would say, 'Yeah, she's going to do it.'

"That's why I feel like this really helps me. I feel almost like I'm 17 again coming on the tour fresh. I feel more free."

Karolina Muchova matched her best Grand Slam run by knocking out 2021 finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-5, 6-2 to reach the last four at Roland Garros for the first time.

The 26-year-old unseeded Czech, who also made the semi-finals of the Australian Open in 2021, will play either Sabalenka or Svitolina for a spot in Saturday's championship match.

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