Carlos Alcaraz outlasts Jannik Sinner in a French Open thriller

One of the defining images of the French Open for the past 20 years has been a headband-wearing, fist-pumping Rafael Nadal sliding on red clay bellowing “Vamos!” at top volume.

With the 14-time champion firmly in the twilight of his career and having bowed out in the first round in Paris, the rallying cry now lives on in the heart of a new Spanish contender.

With a 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 win, 21-year-old Carlos Alcaraz survived budding Italian rival Jannik Sinner to advance to the third Grand Slam final of his career. The reigning Wimbledon champion and the U.S. Open champion in 2022, Alcaraz flexed and expanded his dominion Friday — he is the first man to reach a Grand Slam final on all three surfaces before turning 22.

Asked whether he was aware of that milestone after the match, Alcaraz smiled. Yes, he knew. He checks his phone after playing, of course.

“Well, I always wanted to be one of the best players in the world,” he said. “If I want to be, you know, one of the best players in the world, I have to be a good player on every surface, like Roger [Federer] did, Novak [Djokovic], Rafa [Nadal], [Andy] Murray. The best players in the world had success on every surface.”

It felt fitting that Alcaraz and Sinner, the two nascent greats of their young generation, met in the French Open’s first semifinals since 2014 in which all four players are under the age of 30. With 27-year-old Alexander Zverev beating 25-year-old Casper Ruud, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2, in the second match of the day Friday, Sunday will be the first men’s final at Roland Garros without Djokovic, Nadal or Federer since 2004.

Both Alcaraz and Zverev, who has lost in the semifinals each of the past four years in Paris, will be playing in their first French Open final. Zverev holds a 5-4 edge in their head-to-head matchups, and the pair split their two meetings this year. Both were played on hard courts.

Zverev won Friday in an unexpectedly straightforward match with Ruud the same day a domestic violence court case in his native Germany was resolved with an out-of-court settlement. A district court in Berlin ended the trial after Zverev and his former partner, who had accused him of physical abuse during an argument in 2020, agreed to a monetary payment.

“I told you so from the start. I told everybody. I’m happy that it’s over,” Zverev said.

What was expected to be a thorny semifinal was over fairly quickly after Ruud started feeling discomfort in his stomach near the end of the first set. The Norwegian was the runner-up at Roland Garros in 2022 and 2023, had been the most dominant player this season on clay and arrived to the match well rested after Djokovic withdrew from the tournament with an injury ahead of their quarterfinal matchup.

But with his stomach ailing, Ruud couldn’t muster the necessary intensity to match Zverev’s strong groundstrokes and impeccable serving.

“I don’t have the answers now, but I just, you know, disappointed that it had to be today,” Ruud said. “Why couldn’t it be yesterday or day before, when I had three days off?”

Instead, Zverev advanced to the second Grand Slam final of his career four years after his first, when he lost to Dominic Thiem in the U.S. Open final in 2020. In the four years between, Zverev has lost five Grand Slam semifinals and suffered one ankle injury, at the French Open two years ago, so grizzly he left the court in a wheelchair.

“Going from the U.S. Open final where I was two points away to, you know, being rolled off in a wheelchair here two years ago, it’s all path of my journey,” Zverev said. “Look, I’m in the final. I haven’t won yet. But I just want to play my best tennis and give myself the best chance. If I am able to do that and if I am able to lift that trophy, it will mean the world to me.”

To get to Zverev, Alcaraz had to first conquer the 22-year-old Sinner, who, with Djokovic’s withdrawal, will be the new world No. 1 and the first Italian No. 1 on Monday.

The pair walked onto Court Philippe-Chatrier on Friday with their record against each other knotted at 4 and gold buried in those battles. There was the Alcaraz victory in the U.S. Open quarterfinals two years ago that ended at 2:50 a.m. after five sets of fireworks. Another Alcaraz victory, in their three-set semifinal in Indian Wells, Calif., this year, was a wonder of a comeback after the Spaniard lost the first set 1-6.

“The way that he hits the ball is unbelievable,” Alcaraz said this week. “The way he moves, it’s really, really well. He [pushes] you to the limit in every ball, in every point. I think it is the hardest thing to face Jannik. At the same time, I love that. I love these kind of matches. … I love to find solutions, to find a way to beat him the way that I did in Indian Wells.”

Alcaraz had to find a way in a decisive fifth set Friday, too. At 6-foot-2 and as a graceful mover for all his lank, Sinner arrived at the French Open nursing a hip injury that kept him away from tennis for three weeks. He appeared to be wilting after suffering hand cramps and getting multiple visits from the trainer, some of which were for leg massages, earlier in the match.

“The more the match goes on, the right hip doesn’t have the strength of the left hip. It’s normal at this moment, no?” Sinner said. “So sometimes I feel a little bit, especially after 2½ hours and until the four hours, but this is no excuse. I was moving good. I was feeling quite good on the court.”

Alcaraz pounced, ran out to a 3-0 lead and, at 5-3, stepped to the line to serve for the match as the early evening sun cast half the court in shadow. He flubbed one match point by sending a backhand into the net at 40-30, then earned his second with more daring in the form of a 112-mph second serve but lost the point by sending a forehand long.

He won, finally, on the third match point when a lunging Sinner sent a backhand sailing out, getting one step closer to joining Nadal — and former champions Andrés Gimeno, Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Garbiñe Muguruza.

Alcaraz raised both hands, tipped his head back and roared, the Spanish tradition upheld on the red clay at Roland Garros for at least one more match.

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