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Carlos Alcaraz: Crowning of a new 'King of Clay' at the French Open symbolises dawn of a new era for tennis

Carlos Alcaraz defeated Alexander Zverev in five sets to win his maiden French Open title at Roland Garros; it was the first French Open final since 2004 without the involvement of any of the 'Big Three' of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer

Carlos Alcaraz
Image: Carlos Alcaraz made history as the youngest man to win Grand Slams on all three of the sport's surfaces following his Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles at age 21.

With Carlos Alcaraz clinching his maiden French Open title, the tennis world is witnessing the changing of the guard and a new 'King of Clay'.

It's poetically appropriate that the man who takes the throne spent his youth running home to watch his idol, compatriot and previous chief of the red dirt, Rafael Nadal, lift the trophy.

When Alcaraz dispatched a valiant Alexander Zverev 6-3 2-6 5-7 6-1 6-2 on court Phillipe Chatrier the Spaniard, still just 21, made history as the youngest man to win Grand Slams on all three of the sport's surfaces following his Wimbledon and US Open titles.

Alcaraz had come into the tournament with doubts over his fitness. He had missed the Italian Open due to an injury he sustained to his right forearm, arrived in Paris with barely any matches under his belt and saw out the French Open with an arm sleeve. The pre-tournament uncertainties added to his achievement.

"This is the moment I'm really proud about," Alcaraz said. "Winning the US Open when I reached for the first time the No 1 [ranking], was something that I dreamt about since I started playing tennis. So it was pretty special.

"The way I won Wimbledon, beating Djokovic in five sets, has been a great achievement for me. Right now, lifting the Roland Garros trophy, knowing everything I've been through the last month with the injuries, is the proudest one."

Alcaraz said himself that his "game suits every surface." He first learned the sport on clay, he finds himself most comfortable on hard courts - he sought to excel there because that's what is used at most tournaments - and his always-look-to-attack style is a perfect fit for grass, as his win over seven-time Wimbledon champion Djokovic in last year's final at the All England Club proved. Alcaraz's title defence there begins on July 1.

Of course, he said, he works on his defence. And his drop shots and volleys are valuable tools, as Zverev and so many others can bear rueful witness to.

But Alcaraz's underlying principle is this: "My main goal is being aggressive, as much as I can." He plied his aggression on centre court at Roland Garros, under a quote from Garros - an aviation trailblazer - that reads: "Victory belongs to the most tenacious."

In the semi-finals in Paris, he beat Jannik Sinner - who replaced the injured Djokovic at No 1 in the rankings - and came back from a two-sets-to-one deficit by grabbing eight of the last 11 games in a four-hour, nine-minute match. The final saw Alcaraz wear down Zverev, again erasing a 2-1 deficit in sets, this time by rolling through 12 of the last 15 games in a four-hour, 19-minute match.

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Tennis has a new hero

The influence of the "big three" is waning. Nadal fell to eventual finalist Zverev; despite Djokovic's efforts, injury forced his withdrawal; and Roger Federer retired in 2022. A gaping hole has been left in the centre of the sport and none seem more prepared to fill it than Alcaraz.

In clinching his third Grand Slam, he followed the footsteps of his childhood hero Nadal who was dubbed the 'King of Clay' for his 14 French Open championships across his illustrious career. He may have 13 more championships to claim to equal Nadal, but the youngster has time - and no little ability - on his side.

Djokovic holds the record for the greatest number of men's Grand Slam singles titles with 24, while Nadal sits next on 22 and Federer two further back on 20. However, Djokovic won his first major at the 2008 Australian Open when he was 20, while Federer did so at Wimbledon in 2003 aged 21. Alcaraz picked up his first aged 19 at the US Open, and the world has been at his feet ever since.

The Spaniard is just an eighth of the way towards Djokovic's haul, but that has not stopped him dreaming of achieving the feat.

"I hope so," Alcaraz said when asked whether he could eventually match Djokovic's record tally.

"I talked to coach Juan Carlos Ferrero a few days ago. Before the final, he told me how I'm going to fight for a third Grand Slam title 'with everything you have been through, and you know how difficult winning a Grand Slam is - and Djokovic has 24!' So it is unbelievable.

"Right now I can't think about it. I just want to keep going and let's see how many I'm going to take at the end of my career.

"Hopefully I'll reach the 24, but right now I'm going to enjoy my third one, and let's see in the future."

What next for Alcaraz?

Alcaraz will be eyeing a return to the No 1 ranking having beaten the recently-installed No 1 Sinner in the semi-final, and there is no questioning his ambitions to reclaim the spot he held in 2022.

At 3-0 in Grand Slam finals, we can only watch in awe at what Alcaraz can achieve next. Whatever lies in the young man's future, he'll take to it with his infectious beaming smile that continues to draw in support.

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