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Carlos Alcaraz tops Alexander Zverev at the French Open for his third Grand Slam title at age 21

Spain's Carlos Alcaraz kisses the trophy after winning the men's final of the French Open tennis tournament against Germany's Alexander Zverev at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Sunday, June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

PARIS (AP) — As Carlos Alcaraz began constructing his comeback in Sunday’s French Open final, a 6-3, 2-6, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Alexander Zverev for a first championship at Roland Garros and third Grand Slam title in all, there arrived the sort of magical shot the kid is making a regular part of his varied repertoire.

It was a running, then sliding, down-the-line, untouchable forehand passing winner that Alcaraz celebrated by thrusting his right index finger overhead in a “No. 1” sign, then throwing an uppercut while screaming, “Vamos!”

No, he is not ranked No. 1 at the moment — the man he beat in the semifinals, Jannik Sinner, makes his debut at the top spot on Monday — but Alcaraz has been there before and, although a “2” will be beside his name next week, there is little doubt that he is as good as it gets in men’s tennis right now. And more accomplished than any other man ever has been at his age.

Alcaraz is a 21-year-old from Spain who grew up running home from school to watch on TV as countryman Rafael Nadal was accumulating title after title at Roland Garros — a record 14 — and he just eclipsed Nadal as the youngest man to collect major championships on three surfaces. Nadal was about 1½ years older when he did it.

“Now,” Alcaraz told his parents, after hugging them in the Court Philippe Chatrier stands, “I am lifting this trophy in front of you.”

Alcaraz adds that one from the clay-court Slam to a collection of hardware that includes triumphs on hard courts at the U.S. Open in 2022 and on grass at Wimbledon in 2023. He is 3-0 in major Slam finals.

“It’s an amazing career already. You’re already a Hall of Famer. You already achieved so much — and you’re only 21 years old,” said Zverev, a 27-year-old from Germany who also lost the 2020 U.S. Open final. “Incredible player. Not the last time you’re going to win this.”

Zverev exited the French Open in the semifinals each of the past three years, including after tearing ankle ligaments during the second set against Nadal in that round in 2022. Hours before Zverev’s semifinal victory over Casper Ruud began on Friday, a Berlin district court announced that he reached an out-of-court settlement that ended a trial stemming from an ex-girlfriend’s accusation of assault during a 2020 argument.

On Sunday against Alcaraz, Zverev faltered after surging in front by reeling off the last five games of the third set. Alcaraz’s level dipped during that stretch and he seemed distracted by a complaint over the condition of the clay, telling chair umpire Renaud Lichtenstein it was “unbelievable.”

But Alcaraz reset and ran away with it, taking 12 of the last 15 games while being treated by a trainer at changeovers for an issue with his left leg.

“I lost focus, and on my serve, I didn’t get the power from my legs anymore, which is weird. Because normally I do not get tired. I don’t cramp,” Zverev said. “Against Carlos, it’s a different intensity.”

No. 3 seed Alcaraz and No. 4 Zverev were making their first appearance in a French Open final. Indeed, this was the first men’s title match at Roland Garros since 2004 without at least one of Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer.

Nadal lost to Zverev in the first round two weeks ago; Djokovic, a three-time champion, withdrew before the quarterfinals with a knee injury that required surgery; Federer is retired.

There were some jitters at the outset. Zverev started the proceedings with a pair of double-faults — walking to the sideline to change rackets after the second, as though the equipment was the culprit — and eventually got broken. Alcaraz lost serve immediately, too, framing a forehand that sent the ball into the stands — something he did on a handful of occasions — and double-faulting, trying a so-so drop shot that led to an easy winner for Zverev, then missing a backhand.

Let’s just say they won’t be putting those initial 10 minutes in the Louvre. A lot of the 4-hour, 19-minute match was patchy, littered with unforced errors.

Alcaraz managed to come out strong in the fourth set, grabbing 16 of the first 21 points to move out to a 4-0 edge. The fifth saw more of the same.

Just like he did against Zverev, Alcaraz overturned a deficit of two sets to one against Sinner, making him the first man to capture the French Open by doing that in each of the last two matches since Manolo Santana — also from Spain — pulled off the trick in 1961.

Returning serves from way back, before moving close to the baseline as points progressed, Alcaraz showed off all of his considerable skills. The drop shots, the artful half-volleys, the intimidating forehands delivered aggressively and accompanied by a loud, one-syllable grunt that sounded like “Eh!” at times and “Uh!” at others. Alcaraz finished with 27 forehand winners, 20 more than Zverev.

Not bad for a guy who arrived in Paris saying he was afraid to hit his forehand at full force because of a recent forearm injury. He said Sunday that there were “a lot of doubts” and he was forced to limit his practice time.

In the fifth set, under constant pressure from Alcaraz, Zverev played a poor game that included two miscues plus a double-fault, helping Alcaraz move in front at 2-1. The next game was pivotal and showed the grit and gumption that already have become hallmarks of Alcaraz’s style.

Zverev — who argued about one line call in that game, saying, “There’s no way!” — would hold a total of four break points. He failed to convert any. Alcaraz didn’t let him. After dismissing those chances, Alcaraz wrapped up the game to lead 3-1 with a drop-shot winner.

The crowd roared. Alcaraz held his left index finger to his ear while waving his racket and nodding, seeking even more noise. It arrived. He would break again for 5-2, then served it out and dropped onto his back, caking his shirt with clay — just as Nadal often did after championship point.

Alcaraz first learned to play tennis on the rust-colored surface, although he says he prefers hard courts. Alcaraz says he dreamed long ago of adding his own name to the list of Spanish men to win the event, including his coach, 2003 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.

And those red-and-yellow Spanish flags that became such an annual fixture at Chatrier in the era of Nadal were there again Sunday, this time to support Alcaraz. The difference? The cries of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” are now “Car-los! Car-los!”