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 in five sets on the main Philippe Chatrier Court. Then, Carlos Alcaraz did the very same thing on Simonne Mathieu 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 capacity 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, has had it relatively easy so far in the men’s tournament, but the leaders of the new wave have been right on the edge of breaking.
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 do not yet seem sturdy enough for the rigors of best-of-five-set matches.
There are calls to scrap the 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 worked plenty of long-form magic in the second round on Wednesday. Zverev, the No. 3 seed, dued with Sebastian Baez for 3 hours 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 (perhaps he should not 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. 6 seed, dued with his Spanish compatriot Albert Ramos Viñolas for 4 hours 34 minutes in what certainly looked like the match of the tournament so far.
The Mathieu Court is nicknamed the Greenhouse because it was built amid 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 probable with his foot speed and improvisational skills on the run that recall Nadal in his vamos-barking, scissor-kicking youth.
It wasn’t 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 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 become a star of the present instead.
He has won four titles, including the Miami Open on hardcourts and the Barcelona Open and Madrid Open on clay. He beat Nadal and Djokovic back to back in Madrid before taking a break to rest and recover for Paris.
For all his self-evident talent, it is quite a challenge to arrive at a Grand Slam tournament in your teens as one of the favorites. And Alcaraz often did look 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 left-hander with a yen for clay, expertly changed pace and shuffled tactics. Ramos looks like a lightweight — slight to the point of gaunt — but his full-cut, inside-out forehand is a heavyweight’s punch, and he overwhelmed even Alcaraz with it time and time again.
But after carefully and cleverly building the platform for an upset, Ramos could not quite 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 on his forehand to hit the tape instead of clearing the net.
Two points later, Alcaraz evened the set at 5-5 and then dominated the tiebreaker after failing to convert three set points in the 12th game.
The momentum seemed clearly with the youngster, but Ramos, to his credit, refused to buy into that line of reasoning, 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 defence.
They traded breaks of serve again, but Alcaraz was not done 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 by now, the chance to miss a 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 momentum, another turn was hardly 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 the 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 have beaten Alcaraz on clay this season, defeating him in three sets in 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’m feeling good.”
So is Korda, who defeated the French veteran Richard Gasquet, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-3, on Wednesday in 2 hours 19 minutes.
It would come as no surprise if his rematch with Alcaraz took quite a bit longer than that.
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