Old nemesis Zverev stands between Alcaraz and French Open glory

Estimated read time 4 min read

Even for the most precocious and gifted players, great careers do not develop without suffering. Carlos Alcaraz burst on to the ATP tour breaking age records at will, winning his first major title at the US Open and then following it up with his spectacular triumph at Wimbledon last year. The 11 months since that last victory have presented many challenges.

As his body has tried to catch up with his immense intensity and athleticism, Alcaraz has been sidelined by numerous injuries, including a sprained ankle that occurred one game into his match at the Rio Open this year and an injury to right forearm that has ravaged his clay season, forcing him to withdraw from tournaments in Monte Carlo, Rome and Barcelona. He arrived here having played four matches in the clay season.

When Alcaraz has been healthy enough to compete at full strength, things have not always gone perfectly. The problem with being blessed with such a varied game style, and capable of hitting so many different shots, is deciding on the right one. There have been a flurry of difficult losses as Alcaraz has played erratically, hitting himself off the court with wild unforced errors and failing to adapt when things are not working. Since his Wimbledon triumph, Alcaraz has won one title.

For the best players, adversity is an opportunity to improve. Against Jannik Sinner on Friday, Alcaraz showed once again he is an excellent learner. After starting so slowly, he adapted his game. When he found himself down two sets to one, he did not panic. He even managed to control and hide his nervous cramping, a stark departure from a year ago when his full-body cramps were so bad that he could not properly compete in the final two sets against Novak Djokovic.

This run to the final has been a reflection of Alcaraz’s growing maturity and he rounds on his first Roland Garros final with the stakes sky-high. It has been 20 years since none of Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer were present in a final here, another opportunity for Alcaraz to continue building his argument as the next great player.

Alexander Zverev in action against Casper Ruud in the semi-finalView image in fullscreen

Now the youngest male to reach grand slam finals on all three surfaces after his titles at the 2022 US Open and 2023 Wimbledon, Alcaraz will try to win his third major title and place himself among a distinguished group of three-time champions: Andy Murray, Arthur Ashe, Stan Wawrinka, Gustavo Kuerten and Jan Kodes.

Although Alcaraz begins as favourite on Sunday, this will be an immense challenge. So far in the Spaniard’s young career, his matches against Alexander Zverev have offered a great insight into his excellence and weaknesses. This will be their 10th meeting, making the German Alcaraz’s most frequent opponent at ATP level. Although two of Zverev’s wins occurred while Alcaraz was finding his feet on the tour, in 2021, it is notable Zverev leads their head-to-head with a 5-4 record.

All of Alcaraz’s victories have been extremely one-sided and finished in straight sets. Each of them were exhibitions of his brilliance as he dismantled Zverev by completely overpowering him in the baseline exchanges, exposing his deep-court positioning with his drop shots and net play and feasting on his opponent’s second serve.

But whenever he has entered the match even slightly off his game, such as in their Australian Open quarter-final this year and here in 2022, those occasions have turned into long nights for Alcaraz. Zverev’s serve, which despite its explosiveness used to be inconsistent and haemorrhage double faults, has improved exponentially since he lowered his ball toss this year.

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Not only is he a massive server, his high first-serve percentage in his wins against Alcaraz has rattled the Spaniard and his ability to play tidy counterpunching tennis has at times frustrated him, too.

Zverev has been knocking at the door at this particular tournament, reaching four consecutive semi-finals alongside his four Masters 1000 titles on clay. Once hailed as the heir to the throne, he often has some extra motivation when facing the player who appears to have taken that role.

For Alcaraz, reaching this final has already been an immense effort. Alongside the growth he has shown in his run, he has managed to find his way despite far from ideal preparation. Now he will try to survive one of his toughest opponents under the glare of grand-slam pressure.

Source: theguardian.com

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