Novak Djokovic closed in on a potential blockbuster French Open semi-final against Carlos Alcaraz on Tuesday as Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka outrightly condemned her country’s role in the Ukraine war after reaching the last four at Roland Garros.
Djokovic, chasing a third French Open crown and record 23rd men’s Grand Slam singles title, recovered from dropping his first set of the tournament to defeat 11th seed Karen Khachanov 4-6, 7-6 (7/0), 6-2, 6-4.
The 36-year-old Serb is in his 12th Roland Garros semi-final — his 45th at the majors — and will take on world number one Alcaraz or 2021 runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas for a place in Sunday’s final.
After falling behind for the first time this fortnight, Djokovic dominated the second-set tie-break and then broke Khachanov to begin the third set after a favourable bounce off the net to take control.
“It was probably the turning point of the match. Winning the second set or losing the second set would be quite a big difference,” said Djokovic.
“I managed to have a perfect couple of minutes of tennis and turned things around, and then just the energy of the court shifted to my side.”
Djokovic hit 19 winners and just one unforced error in the third set, conceding a solitary point on his serve before breaking the Russian again for good measure.
He briefly let slip a 4-2 lead in the fourth set but immediately broke back and secured a ninth win in 10 tries against Khachanov with an ace on match point.
In the night session, tournament favourite Alcaraz goes up against Greek fifth seed Tsitsipas in his stiffest challenge so far.
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.”
– Sabalenka speaks out against Lukashenko –
The war in Ukraine came into sharp focus again Tuesday as Sabalenka ended Elina Svitolina’s surprise run in the highest-profile match between two players whose countries are on opposing sides of the conflict.
Sabalenka won a politically-charged match 6-4, 6-4 to extend her Grand Slam winning streak to 12 matches following her first major title at the Australian Open in January.
Svitolina was booed by the crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier after refusing to shake hands, a common practice now in the sport when a Ukrainian player meets a Russian or Belarusian opponent.
After boycotting her past two press conferences, Sabalenka insisted she is not a supporter of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a key military ally of Moscow.
“I’m not supporting the war, meaning I don’t support Lukashenko right now,” said the world number two, who has been urged by Ukrainian rivals to use her platform to individually stand up against the war.
“I don’t want my country to be involved in any conflict. I said it many times. You have my position. You have my answer,” she said.
“I don’t want sport to be involved in politics, because I’m just a 25-year-old tennis player.”
Svitolina, playing her first Grand Slam since becoming a mother, has lost all four of her quarter-final appearances in Paris.
Sabalenka has now reached the last four at each of the Grand Slams and will face 43rd-ranked Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic for a place in Saturday’s final.
The unseeded Muchova matched her best run at a major 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 Czech also made the semi-finals of the Australian Open in 2021.