PARIS — The thrills were separated only by a short walk through the formal gardens at the French Open on Wednesday.
First, Alexander Zverev saved a match point and won in five sets on Philippe Chatrier’s main court. Then Carlos Alcaraz did exactly the same thing on Simonne Mathieu Court, covering the red sand like few men have ever covered at Roland Garros as he sprinted into the corners and seemingly beyond.
The fresh-looking French Open, so transformed that veterans could use a guided tour lest they run into a new wall or newly-planted bush, certainly hasn’t lost its ability to test its fighters.
The old guard, led by world no.
In Tuesday night’s first round, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the No. 4 seed, Monte Carlo champion and Rome finalist, had to break free two sets down from Lorenzo Musetti, a young Italian whose one-handed backhand is pretty enough for the Uffizi, but his legs don’t yet seem strong enough for the rigors of best-of-five set matches.
There are calls for best-of-five to be scrapped altogether by those who feel it’s unsuitable for the digital age of social media highlights and entertainment glut.
But the format favors the better players in the long run and certainly worked a lot of long-form magic in the second round on Wednesday. Zverev, the number 3, dueled Sebastian Baez for 3 hours and 36 minutes before prevailing 2-6 4-6 6-1 6-2 7-5 after scoring a match point with a big and brave serve the T, which 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 games at Roland Garros, which is both good news and bad news (maybe he shouldn’t go the distance that 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’ll never be at that level, but I’m just trying to get closer to them.”
Alcaraz, number 6, dueled fellow Spanish player Albert Ramos Viñolas for 4 hours and 34 minutes in what has certainly looked like the match of the tournament so far.
The Mathieu courtyard is nicknamed the greenhouse because it is built in the middle of botanical gardens and surrounded by exotic plants. But the funhouse might have been more fitting in this case, as Alcaraz stretched rallies well beyond the likely with his foot speed and improvisational running skills reminiscent of Nadal in his vamos barking, scissor-kicking youth.
It wasn’t Alcaraz’s best match in 2022. Far from it. But it certainly looked like his worst as he found a way to move forward, 6-1 6-7(7) 5-7 7-6(2) 6-4.
“These are the kind of games that help you grow in your career,” said Alcaraz, a 19-year-old who was considered a star of the future at the start of the season but has instead blossomed into a star of the present.
He has won four titles including the Miami Open on hard courts and the Barcelona Open and Madrid Open on clay. He beat Nadal and Djokovic back to back in Madrid before pausing to rest and recover for Paris.
For all his obvious talent, arriving as a teenager in a Grand Slam tournament as one of the favorites is quite a challenge. And Alcaraz often looked more toned than usual on Wednesday, forcing the issue with his groundstrokes and drop shots rather than waiting for prime time to strike.
Meanwhile, Ramos, a 34-year-old left-hander with a penchant for clay, expertly changed pace and changed tactics. Ramos looks lightweight – light to gaunt – but his full-cut, inside-out forehand is a heavyweight’s punch, and he overpowered even Alcaraz with it time and time again.
But after carefully and skillfully building the platform for a surprise, Ramos couldn’t quite finish the construction work. Serving for the win 5-4 in the fourth set, he had a match point and boosted his forehand just enough to hit the ribbon rather than clear the net.
Two points later, Alcaraz equalized the set 5-5 and then dominated the tiebreak after failing to convert three set points in game 12.
Momentum seemed clear with the youngster but Ramos, to his credit, refused to address that reasoning, taking a 3-0 lead in the fifth set before Alcaraz roared back to 3-3 with his rare mix of attacking and defence.
They traded breaks of serve again but Alcaraz wasn’t done running and digging. When Ramos served again, Alcaraz produced his most scintillating defense of the game, stretching to slam a forehand into a corner and then sprinting across the sand to extend the rally again, which Ramos, understandably tense by now, gave the Chance to miss a volley in the net.
“Great point,” said Alcaraz. “Long match. To be able to run like that and get the point like I did is incredible.”
The comeback wasn’t complete, however, and in a match full of abrupt momentum changes, another turn in the funhouse was hardly out of the question. But Alcaraz didn’t enjoy Ramos. As the crowd chanted “Carlos” between points, he served out the serve win 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, beating 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 have played many more hours on the pitch since then,” said Alcaraz. “I feel good.”
So did Korda, who defeated the French veteran Richard Gasquet 7: 6 (5), 6: 3, 6: 3 in 2 hours 19 minutes on Wednesday.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if his rematch with Alcaraz lasted a little longer.