How Carlos Alcaraz won the French Open by beating his biggest opponent: His body

PARIS – For a while now, there’s been a growing sense that two players pose the biggest obstacles to Carlos Alcaraz’s takeover of tennis. 

One is Jannik Sinner, the wildly talented Italian who will assume the No. 1 spot in the rankings on Monday morning.

The other is Carlos Alcaraz.

More specifically, it’s Alcaraz’s body, but also his mind — to the extent that it so often dictates how his body feels. 

Alcaraz, the 21-year-old Spanish star who makes tennis fans gasp like no one else can, beat Alexander Zverev of Germany on Sunday to win his first French Open title. It is the third Grand Slam title of Alcaraz’s surging career, a win that puts him on track to become an all-time great, which is what everyone in the know has been predicting for him since his early teen years. He became the first men’s player to win his first three Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces, a mind-boggling feat for someone so young.

That may feel inevitable now, with Alcaraz holding two of the four Grand Slam titles, beaming with an easy electric smile as he raised the Coupe des Mousquetaires into the air in front of 15,000 cheering fans joining his party on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

Alcaraz’s first French Open is a triumph of perseverance (Frey / TPN via Getty Images)

A year ago, it was anything but inevitable. Nobody, least of all Alcaraz, believed it could happen this way and this quickly, especially not during the past month, when a lingering arm injury had him afraid to hit his lethal forehand at 100 percent.

His coaches and physiotherapists told him everything was fine, that he was free to swing freely. After what he had been through, he wasn’t so sure, and that was at the top of his mind as he stood on a podium soaking in a moment that only weeks ago he never thought possible.

“The last month we were struggling a lot,” he said. Now, after a fortnight of struggle, he has beaten both of his greatest opponents. Sinner, with a five-set display of physical toughness. His body, with his mind.



Game, Set, Match: Carlos Alcaraz beats Alexander Zverev to win first French Open

The weeks before the French Open had been filled with doubts. He had barely been able to practice. It seemed like what he had experienced during the previous year, and even for some months before that, was coming for him all over again.   

Back then, Alcaraz was starting to gain a reputation as a beautiful but possibly brittle player. His young body, so fast and so strong, way beyond the level of most 20/21-year-olds, somehow kept betraying him. 

This was the time in his life that he was supposed to be enjoying the benefits of a physique that can perform like a rubber band, twisting and racing for hours on end on the tennis court, then coming back and doing it all over again the next day, or two days later. 

That’s not how it had gone at all.

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Alcaraz at the 2021 ATP Next Gen finals, which he won, beating Sebastian Korda in the final. (Julian Finney / Getty Images)

Shortly after his breakthrough win at the U.S. Open in 2022, an abdominal injury forced him out of the ATP Tour Finals. Then in early January, in his last practice before boarding a plane for the Australian Open, he stretched after a short ball at the net, pulling his hamstring and putting himself out of the tournament.

He aggravated that injury in South America a month later, but found his health and form in the early spring, winning Indian Wells. Then they deserted him again, and he cramped up on a humid evening at the Miami Open that March, and limped his way to the end of his semifinal loss to Sinner.

That brought him to May 2023. This is where the symmetry kicks in.

One year ago, Alcaraz was in the same stadium, Sunday’s scene of triumph, going through a nightmare.

He was playing Novak Djokovic, in the semifinal of the same tournament. A bundle of nerves and errors, he had lost the first set 6-1 (as he would do at Wimbledon, weeks later) before playing majestic, almost unthinkable tennis of air and grit to win the second set and draw level (as he would do at Wimbledon, weeks later.) 

At Wimbledon, that was the thrust to go on and win the title.

In Paris, that was when things got really weird.

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Cramps derailed Carlos Alcaraz’s title push in Paris last year (Frey /TPN via Getty Images)

Near the end of that second set, as the physical match edged toward its third hour, Alcaraz began to stiffen. He tried to stretch and shake out his limbs, but the stress of the moment and Djokovic’s relentlessness again brought on the cramping, this time with a nearly paralyzing effect. 

He promised that evening that he would figure it out — when he beat Djokovic in that Wimbledon final in July, he seemed to have made good on his word. He didn’t win another tournament for the rest of the season, but it wasn’t because of his physical health. He kept losing his concentration in the middle of matches, he said, drifting away and unable to claw his way back before it was too late. Tennis, he said, was losing its joy.

His family asked him why he so rarely smiled when he practiced.

Those challenges stretched through the Australian Open, when he lost to Zverev in the quarterfinals in a shoddy performance. A month later, he twisted his ankle two games into the Rio Open. He sunk as low as he had felt in his professional career and arrived at Indian Wells trying to defend his title but also desperate to rediscover the joy that is so essential for his game. He did, beating Sinner in the semifinal from a set down, playing the kind of joyful rubber band tennis that had eluded him for so long.

It looked like his old magic was back. Instead, it would elude him a little longer.

The forearm injury that now sees him wearing that bright white compression sleeve forced him out of tournaments in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, tournaments that, if fit, he would have been a favorite to win. It endured long enough to compromise his efforts in Madrid, where he lost to Andrey Rublev after squeaking past Jan-Lennard Struff, and forced him to skip the Italian Open in Rome, the main tune-up for the French Open. 

When he arrived in Paris, he hammered his first opponent, J.J. Wolf, who won just three games, but still felt like his body and brain were working against him. “I’m still feeling weird, let’s say, or afraid to hit every forehand 100 percent,” he said. “It’s still in my mind.”

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The forearm sleeve has been omnipresent during his run to the title. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

There is a lot that makes Alcaraz very different from just about every other tennis player. Part of that is his willingness to be so open about worries and his fears, and the havoc that his mind can sometimes wreak on his body. The other part is using that vulnerability not to cow himself, or to fear its consequences, but do find and shape tools to deploy when that precarious symbiosis between physical and psychological tips out of balance.

“I’m stronger mentally,” he said after beating Sinner in the French Open semifinal. The cramps came then, in in the third set, who was experiencing them, too. Flashbacks to Djokovic rose like smoke, but Alcaraz didn’t panic. He’d been here before, and he had a plan.

He knew that if he just accepted the moment and pushed through, tried to shorten the points, the cramps would go away. “I knew much better how to do it this year than last year,” he said.

More pain would come against Zverev on Sunday, beginning late in the third set and continuing into the fourth. It was the same pain he had felt during the match against Sinner.

He asked for a medical time-out and sat on his chair for several minutes as a trainer massaged his left thigh. Again, he accepted it, telling himself that after all the tennis he had played, some pain was inevitable.

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Alcaraz came through pain and cramps against Sinner and Zverev to win the title. (Alain Jocard / AFP via Getty Images)

“If you don’t feel something like this, you are not human,” he said later.

Zverev said he was struggling, too, running out of gas. 

“I don’t cramp. We’re both physically strong, but he’s a beast,” Zverev said. “He’s an animal, for sure. The intensity at which he plays tennis is different from other people.”

It is different from other people, and it has not come easy. Sunday night had Alcaraz saying that he took more pride in this latest win than the first two Grand Slam titles, because of the rocky road he has been on for nearly a year. Especially this spring, when his body looked like it might betray him once more.

“Everything that I have done the last month just to be ready for this tournament with my team,” he said.

Every day they had to consider whether it was safe for him to practice or if he needed to rest. That was tough on a player who is still, at heart, someone who loves tennis.

“It’s been really difficult,” he said.

The crucial moments in those matches have also included plenty of the miraculous winners and knee-twisting drop shots that he has made his own. These matches are the biggest victories of his year and some of the biggest of his career as he adjusts to being not the future of men’s tennis, but its present. However, they feel different to the ones that have made him renowned. They have taken him to what was before his physical edge, and dangled him over it, only to see him find more dirt beneath his feet when he needs it.

After he beat Sinner to make the final, Alcaraz said something that he hadn’t really said before, something that came out of his mouth but seemed to come from a more advanced recess of his brain, mature beyond his insouciance, perhaps hardened by the pain of the last twelve months. He said that grinding out victories on the red clay of Roland Garros requires an ability to “find joy in the suffering”.

He had suffered here plenty before. On Sunday, on his fourth try, he got to the joy.

(Top photos: Tim Goode; Antonio Borga / Eurasia Sport Images via Getty Images; design: Dan Goldfarb for The Athletic)

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