For more than two weeks, ever since he had the audacity to defeat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal back-to-back en route to winning another Masters 1000 title in Madrid, the noise surrounding the 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz has been deafening.
He has been called the best player in the world by Djokovic, the No 1 player himself. He was, according to some bookmakers, the tournament favourite to win Roland Garros even with Djokovic and Nadal present. He arrived in Paris with expectations higher than they have been for any teenager since Nadal 17 years ago.
Yet in a delirious battle on Court Simmone-Mathieu late into Wednesday evening, Alcaraz so very nearly fell at just the second hurdle. Alcaraz stood match point down in the fourth set on Albert Ramos-Viñolas’s serve, then he trailed 0-3 in a fifth set that threatened to fall from his grasp and he simply could not find his form on so many of the 31 break points he generated. No matter, Alcaraz somehow recovered to defeat Ramos-Viñolas 6-1, 6-7 (7), 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 and reach the third round.
The challenge before Alcaraz on the third biggest court was one of the ultimate irritants in the game. Although he has no great weapon, Ramos-Viñolas lives for clay courts where he can prod, push and disrupt opponents into madness. He combines his relentless ability to open up the court through angles with strong movement and steadfast consistency, which has taken him into the top 20 and a Roland Garros quarter-final.
After being blown away 6-1 in the first set by an on-fire Alcaraz, the elder Spaniard slowly dug into Alcaraz’s psyche and infuriated him. As Alcaraz’s errors flowed, he took the second and third sets and then he broke to serve for the match at 5-4. In the tight deuce game that followed, Ramos-Viñolas had the match point on his racquet as he attacked an inside-out forehand, but it hit the top of the net and fell on his side. By cutting out his own errors, keeping the ball in play and striking one outrageous bounce smash winner, Alcaraz survived before edging out the tiebreak.
Throughout the fifth set, as his groundstrokes and drop shots continued to splutter, Alcaraz tried everything, battering forehands and retrieving for his life. At one point he even chipped and charged, burying a backhand volley at the end. The match was ultimately decided by two supreme pieces of skill and athleticism.
He broke serve for 4-3 with a moment of absurdity, a running single-handed backhand passing shot at the edge of his range. When Ramos-Viñolas immediately broke back, Alcaraz responded in turn by retrieving three overheads in a row before forcing a volley error. Both times, he reduced the audience to a picture of collective shock at what they had just witnessed. Alcaraz recovered in the end, moving to an outrageous 30-3 record in 2022.
This could be a moment of friction that releases Alcaraz’s inhibitions and allows him to play at the top of his level in the matches to come, or it could be an indication that despite the hype, he may not quite be ready for grand-slam success. What is clear is that Alcaraz is one of the most thrilling sights in the sport right now and his matches to come will be essential viewing.
Earlier, Cameron Norrie calmly reached the third round with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win over Jason Kubler. Norrie, the 10th seed, will face the 21st seed Karen Khachanov as he looks to reach his first grand slam fourth round. In three of his previous four grand slam third round finishes, Norrie has faced Rafael Nadal twice and Roger Federer. “I’ll take that every day of the week, being in this position and being the higher seed,” he said.