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Tennis-Djokovic closes on Major 23 as Alcaraz breaks down, faces Ruud in final

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By Julien Pretot and Shrivathsa Sridhar

PARIS (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic took a giant leap towards claiming a men’s record 23rd Grand Slam trophy with a 6-3 5-7 6-1 6-1 French Open semi-final victory over an ailing Carlos Alcaraz in a clash of titans that ended in anticlimactic fashion on Friday.

In Sunday’s title clash, the world number three will face rampant fourth seed Casper Ruud who stormed into the final for a second year running by swatting aside German 22nd seed Alexander Zverev 6-3 6-4 6-0 in a battle of big-hitters.

Earlier, the top-ranked Alcaraz had levelled the contest with Djokovic when disaster struck as the Spaniard limped to his bench holding his right leg at 1-1 in the third set.

While he continued playing, the U.S. Open champion was clearly hampered by cramps but Djokovic was merciless, dropping only one of 12 games to surge into the final.

“It’s been really tough for me, honestly. I disappointed myself honestly in a match like this,” said Alcaraz, who skipped this year’s Australian Open because of a hamstring injury.

“The first set and the second set were really, really intense and I started to cramp in my arm. At the beginning of the third set I started to cramp every part of my body, not only the legs. The arms as well, every part of the legs.”

Djokovic will play in his 34th Grand Slam final, his seventh at Roland Garros where he has lifted the Musketeers’ Cup twice, in 2016 and 2021.

ULTIMATE TEST

The 36-year-old was facing the ultimate test against Alcaraz, who had bulldozed through the draw, only for the 20-year-old to break down in abrupt fashion.

“Tough luck for Carlos. Obviously at this level, the last thing you want is cramps and physical problems in the last stages of a Grand Slam,” said Djokovic, who was in his 46th semi-final at a major.

“It was probably difficult for him to decide whether he should retire or continue until the last point but he’s a fighter, so respect to him for that.”

The much-awaited clash had started with Djokovic going for the throat and breaking for 3-1 before saving four break points and taking the opening set after almost an hour.

With Mike Tyson watching from the stands, both players traded punches and Djokovic was on the ropes in the second set, with Alcaraz playing several spectacular shots.

After an exchange of breaks, the Spaniard levelled the match as Djokovic overcooked a forehand and it appeared the momentum had shifted.

“It is not easy to maintain that intensity,” said Djokovic, who has now won his last 100 Grand Slam matches in which he bagged the opening set.

“Towards the end of the second set he was the better player. I had to be aggressive, to take the ball early otherwise he would be the aggressive one.

“He’s very fast, very dynamic so I had to match that and do even better, which was very exhausting.”

It was, however, the younger player’s body that capitulated first in a contest that could have been a classic.

RUUD ROLLS ON

Ruud, who was swept aside by Rafa Nadal in straight sets as the Spaniard won his 14th crown on the Parisian clay last year, had endured an up-and-down 2023 season until his return to Roland Garros where he has hit peak form again.

But the Norwegian, who is chasing a maiden major, is well aware of the daunting task ahead of him.

“It’s going to be tough this year against Novak. Two of the toughest in history and I’ll be the underdog again,” Ruud said.

“I know Novak is trying to be the greatest. I’m going to try my best. He’s going for Grand Slam number 23 and I’m going for my first, so there’s a big difference.”

(Reporting by Julien Pretot and Shrivathsa Sridhar in Paris; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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