It was a clash billed to be a high-octane thriller — similar to previous contests of this hyped, burgeoning new rivalry — but it turned out to be a slow-burning afternoon of intrigue and fine margins under the baking Parisian sunshine.

In their French Open semifinal on Friday, Carlos Alcaraz, the 21-year-old World No. 3 from Spain, edged 22-year-old Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 to reach his first final at Roland Garros.

Not all nail-biters are of the highest quality; this match ended up being one of different qualities in different sets. Only on a few occasions would either player roll out their best tennis, and rarely at the same time. 12 breaks of serve, 102 unforced errors, and 15 double faults in total certainly tell that story.

But the ebbs and flows of best-of-five sets tennis, which these two rising players will undoubtedly experience more and potentially even master, do not reward consistency or quality as much as seizing momentum when it flows one’s way. The very best level is not always required to do that.

And on Friday, this matchup of contrasting attitudes would become a showcase of just that. Alcaraz’s showmanship and commitment to attacking, low-percentage tennis has led to his rise and made his way into several highlight reels. But it is well-matched by Sinner’s methodical, more precise approach that complements his destructive shotmaking.

If it was Sinner’s imposing composure and clean hitting that rushed and rattled Alcaraz at the start and allowed him to prevail in the high-pressure situations, it would be Alcaraz’s flair that allowed him to produce moments of the highest quality to turn this match around and escape with the victory.

Festive offer

Many momentum shifts

Sinner kicked off proceedings in fine form, steamrolling Alcaraz into a 4-0 first-set lead. The Spaniard never looked like he was an equal participant even as he seemed to build a way back into the contest, slumping in the opener.

But just as Sinner seemed to be in total control, up a break in the second, he would fall off dramatically, leaking errors and double faults, losing five games in a row for the momentum to flow Alcaraz’s way.

Even as his opponent seemed to be struggling physically with cramps, and the tide turned, Alcaraz blinked as he had the opportunity to impose himself. He had four break points in the nearly 15-minute-long fifth game of the third set, but the Spaniard squandered each one. Sinner lifted himself enough to take advantage of his opponent’s lapse, needed only one break point to go into the lead, and edged the set from there.

But Alcaraz’s superior physicality and appetite for the big stage would come to the fore. Sinner knew he had to do what the best players tend to do in these situations — serve well, ride out momentum and take it deep hoping for the player with more to lose to crumble under pressure. But while under the pump, Alcaraz found more zip on his groundstrokes, served much better, and his deft touch was on point. For evidence, replay those signature drop shots at pressure moments, on repeat.

In those knife-edge moments, it would be Sinner who would show the nerves. The Italian went 30-0 up while serving to stay in the fourth, but netted a simple overhead to make it 30-30, from where Alcaraz played two high-quality points to escape with the set and the momentum. After taking an early break in decider, despite both players creating some of the best moments of the match, Alcaraz would serve well enough to ensure there was no other twist.

Sinner did not consistently find his best, and there remains doubt over what was going wrong with him physically midway through the contest, but Alcaraz would acknowledge that this was one of the most significant challenges of his career.

“You have to find the joy in suffering… Even more so on clay, here at Roland Garros,” Alcaraz said after the match. Exactly 11 years ago, a certain other Spaniard named Rafael Nadal had that exact thing to say, after beating a great rival of his (Novak Djokovic) in a 5-set semifinal.

Alcaraz would explain how past experiences allowed him to stay on course: “I saw him struggling a little bit. I was cramping, Jannik as well. I learned from last year’s match against Djokovic, in the same position as today, that you have to be calm and keep going.”

At 21, he became the youngest man to reach the finals of Majors at all surfaces. The Spaniard will play his third Major final on Sunday, after winning at Wimbledon last year and at the 2022 US Open. One step away from all-court mastery.