PARIS – The thrills were separated only by a short stroll through the formal gardens at the French Open on Wednesday.
First, Alexander Zverev saved a match point and won five sets on the main Philippe Chatrier Court. Then, Carlos Alcaraz did the same thing on Simonne Mathieu’s court, covering the red clay like few men have ever covered it at Roland Garros as he sprinted into the corners and seemingly beyond.
The fresh-look French Open, revamped to the point that old hands could use a guided tour to avoid running into a new wall or a freshly planted shrub, has certainly not lost its ability to test its combatants to the limit.
The old guard, led by the world no. 1 Novak Djokovic and the 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, have made it relatively easy so far in the men’s tournament, but the new wave of leaders has been breaking right on the edge.
On Tuesday night in the first round, the no. 4 seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas, champion in Monte Carlo and finalist in Rome, had to rally from two sets down to shake free of Lorenzo Musetti, a young Italian whose one-handed backhand is pretty enough for the Uffizi but whose legs don’t seem yet. Just enough for the rigors of the best-of-five-set matches.
There are calls to scrap best-of-five altogether from those who consider it ill-suited to the digital age of social media highlights and entertainment overload.
But the format favors the better players over the long run and certainly plenty of long-form magic in the second round on Wednesday. Zverev, the No. 3 seed, dueled with Sebastian Baez for three hours and 36 minutes before prevailing, 2-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 7-5, after saving a match point with a big and bold serve up the T That Baez failed to return in the 10th game of the final set.
“You just have to find a way,” said Zverev, who is 8-1 in five-set matches at Roland Garros, which is both good news and bad news (maybe he shouldn’t be going the distance quite so often).
“Some players, the greats, Rafa, Novak and Roger, always find a way in the most difficult moments,” he added. “That’s why they are who they are. I’m never going to be at that level, but I’m just trying to get closer to them. “
Alcaraz, the no. The 6 seed, dueled with his Spanish compatriot Albert Ramos Viñolas for four hours and 34 minutes, looks exactly like the match of the tournament so far.
The Mathieu Court is nicknamed the Greenhouse because it was built in the mid-botanical gardens and is surrounded by exotic plants. But the Funhouse may have been more fitting in this instance as Alcaraz extended rallies far beyond the potential with his foot speed and improvisational skills on the run that recall Nadal in his vamos-barking, scissor-kicking youth.
It was not Alcaraz’s best match of 2022. Far from it. But it certainly looked like his grittiest as he found a way to advance, 6-1, 6-7 (7), 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4.
“These are the kinds of matches that will help you grow in your career,” said Alcaraz, a 19-year-old who started the season being considered a star of the future but has instead become a star of the present.
He has won four titles, including the Miami Open on hardcourts and Barcelona Open and Madrid Open on clay. He beat Nadal and Djokovic back to back in Madrid before taking a break and resting for Paris.
For all his self-evident talent, it is quite a challenge to arrive at a Grand Slam tournament as one of his teens. And Alcaraz often looked tighter than usual on Wednesday: forcing the issue with his groundstrokes and drop shots, rather than waiting for the prime time to strike.
Meanwhile, Ramos, a 34-year-old lefthander with a yen for clay, expertly changed pace and shuffled tactics. Ramos looks like a lightweight – slightly to the point of gaunt – but his full-cut, inside-out forehand is a heavyweight’s punch, and he’s overwhelmed even with Alcaraz time and time again.
But after carefully and cleverly building the platform for an upset, Ramos couldn’t finish the construction job. Serving for the victory at 5-4 in the fourth set, he had a match point and tightened up just enough to hit his forehand instead of clearing the net.
Two points later, Alcaraz even dominated the set at 5-5 and then dominated the tiebreaker after failing to convert to three set points in the 12th game.
The momentum seemed clearly with the youngster, but Ramos, to his credit, bought into the reasoning of that line, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the fifth set before Alcaraz roared back to 3-3 with his rare blend of offense. and defense.
They traded breaks to serve again, but Alcaraz wasn’t running and digging. With Ramos serving again, Alcaraz produced his most dazzling defense of the match: stretching to slap a forehand in one corner and then sprinting across the clay to extend the rally again, which gave Ramos, understandably on edge, the chance to miss. volley in the net.
“Great point,” Alcaraz said. “Long match. To be able to run like this and get the point like I did, it’s amazing. “
The comeback was still not complete, however, and in a match full of abrupt shifts in the momentum, another turn was probably out of the question in the Funhouse. But Alcaraz instead made it no fun at all for Ramos. With the crowd chanting “Carlos” between points, he served out a victory at love with a forehand winner and three aces.
Next challenge: Sebastian Korda, a 21-year-old American whose star is also rising and who is the only man to beat Alcaraz this season, defeating him in three sets of the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters last month.
“I’ve obviously played a lot of matches on clay and played many more hours on the court since then,” Alcaraz said. “I am feeling good.”
So is Korda, who defeated the French veteran Richard Gasquet, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-3 on Wednesday in two hours and 19 minutes.
It would come as no surprise if his rematch with Alcaraz took quite a bit longer than that.