PARIS — As intriguing as Carlos Alcaraz vs. Novak Djokovic is — and it’s plenty intriguing — there are storylines worth following in the other French Open men’s semifinal, too.
No, frankly, Casper Ruud vs. Alexander Zverev, which will be played second on Friday, does not deserve the same billing. It’s missing the cache and the resumes that the other two guys remaining in the field at Roland Garros will carry into Court Philippe Chatrier.
Still, even without Djokovic’s 22 Grand Slam titles — with a chance to break a tie with Rafael Nadal for the most earned by a man in tennis history — or even Alcaraz’s lone such trophy, and even without Alcaraz’s current No. 1 ranking or Djokovic’s current No. 3 with a shot at moving back up (along with the career record for most weeks atop the ATP), No. 4 Ruud and No. 22 Zverev bring terrific games and past close-and-yet-so-far history at major tournaments.
Let’s examine Ruud first.
He is a 24-year-old from Norway who is coached by his father, a former professional player, and got as far as the fourth round only once in his first 13 Slam appearances and now is into his third semifinal in the past five. That includes runner-up showings at Roland Garros ( losing to Nadal in the final ) and at the U.S. Open ( losing to Alcaraz in the final ) in 2022.
He is a 26-year-old from Germany of whom greatness was predicted long ago, one of the members of the generation that was supposed to succeed the Big Three of Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer but has never quite lived up to that.
Zverev is, however, into the semifinals in Paris for the third year in a row, and his sixth major semi overall. His best performance was making it to the final at the 2020 U.S. Open, taking the first two sets against Dominic Thiem before losing that lead and the match.
Zverev’s ranking is not necessarily a fair reflection of his talent or success, because he was out of action entirely for seven months after tearing three ligaments in his right ankle late in the second set of his semifinal against Nadal at last year's French Open.
“It was definitely a tournament that I marked on my calendar this year,” Zverev said. “I’m at a stage now where I’m not thinking about the injury so much anymore. I’m not thinking about what happened. I’m just happy to be back where I was last year, and I have another chance. Hopefully I can take it.”
He didn't compete until January, and said he wasn't pain-free until a few months after that.
“I was not able to practice normally. I was not able to do the things that I wanted. So regarding that, I think it was just getting through the process. I mean, after that, it also takes time to feel the confidence again in your leg to be sliding around the court, being able to move the way you were,” said Zverev, who has diabetes and has been allowed to inject himself with insulin during changeovers, a policy he said is not sure will be in place at Wimbledon.
“But I’m talking about the injury more than I’m thinking about it,” Zverev said. “It’s in the past now.”
Neither he nor Ruud arrived at Roland Garros a couple of weeks ago with success this season that would have portended these sorts of runs.
Zverev was just 16-14 with zero titles in 2023; Ruud was 16-11 with one title.
Now both are one win against the other away from a chance to try to claim a first Grand Slam championship on Sunday by beating Alcaraz or Djokovic.
“It’s going to be, hopefully, a fun one. I think it’s great to see Sascha back. I think both for him and me, this is our biggest result this year, reaching the semifinal. I think we will try to play with shoulders down and just try to enjoy it,” Ruud said, referring to Zverev by his nickname.
“It’s been a tough year for Sascha, and he has fought his way back, and he is back in the semifinal here. The beginning of this year for me has not been great, so it’s great to get a good result here for me," Ruud said. "We will both just try to enjoy the moment.”