Master of three: On the French Open

Alcaraz has put himself at the head of the new generation in tennis?

Published - June 11, 2024 12:15 am IST

One of tennis’ foremost challenges is in achieving multi-surface excellence. Grass, clay and the acrylic require varied skill sets, and while there are many jacks in the trade, there are very few masters. Carlos Alcaraz, with his maiden French Open title on Sunday, set himself on course towards joining an elite bunch of such greats. The clay-court Major was the 21-year-old’s third, alongside US Open 2022 and Wimbledon 2023, and made him the youngest man in the Open Era (from 1968) to display such all-court mastery. The victory came at an important time for Alcaraz. Long considered the anointed heir to the famed trio of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Alcaraz, in recent months, had not looked the part. Since winning Wimbledon, Indian Wells in March 2024 was his lone trophy, and the rise of Italian Jannik Sinner — Australian Open champion and the World No.1 — meant he had a generational rival to contend with. Lingering fitness issues, including the arm injury that limited his Roland-Garros tune-up to just one event, proved debilitating. But with a back-to-the-wall performance, including in the semifinal and final where he was down two sets to one against Sinner and a resurgent Alexander Zverev, Alcaraz chose one of the sport’s grandest stages to showcase his true worth.

Iga Swiatek is yet to match the Spaniard’s all-encompassing standards, but over the last two weeks, the 23-year-old showed that she was peerless on the red dirt. Saturday’s win over the unheralded Italian Jasmine Paolini earned Swiatek her third straight French Open, fourth in Paris and a fifth Slam overall. Swiatek’s dominance is best reflected in the fact that she has only ever entered six Roland-Garros singles main draws, has a 35-2 win-loss record and has lost just three sets in her four title-runs. Four-time Major champion Naomi Osaka did come within a point of ending Swiatek’s stay in the second round, but the Pole displayed enormous mental fortitude to weather the storm and not let the doubts consume her. So good was her fortnight that she started drawing comparisons with the early years of Nadal. While Nadal’s 14 titles may be insurmountable, Swiatek, like the 22-time Slam winner whom she idolises, can surely expand her success beyond clay. She is adept on the hard courts and has been the dominant World No.1 from April 2022, but for the eight weeks in late 2023 when Aryna Sabalenka reigned. The lack of success on grass — quarterfinals at Wimbledon 2023 being the best effort — has been Swiatek’s bane and she has a golden opportunity to correct that in three weeks.

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