PARIS (AP) — Carlos Alcaraz started poorly and fell behind early in his French Open semifinal against Jannik Sinner. Later, as both dealt with cramps under Friday’s afternoon sun, Alcaraz trailed by two sets to one.

By the end of the latest installment in this burgeoning rivalry between two young, talented players, an engaging five-setter that lasted 4 hours, 9 minutes, Alcaraz actually had accumulated fewer total points, 147-145.

That, of course, is not the score that matters. And Alcaraz, who says he takes pleasure from challenges, ultimately persevered, pulling out a 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Sinner to get to his first final in Paris. It made the 21-year-old from Spain the youngest man to reach a Grand Slam title match on three surfaces.

“You have to find the joy (while) suffering. That’s the key — even more on clay, here at Roland Garros. Long rallies. Four-hour matches. Five sets,” Alcaraz said. “You have to fight. You have to suffer. But as I told my team many, many times, you have to enjoy suffering.”

He won championships at the U.S. Open in 2022 on hard courts and at Wimbledon in 2023 on grass.

Now the No. 3-seeded Alcaraz will face No. 4 Alexander Zverev of Germany or No. 7 Casper Ruud of Norway on the red clay Sunday. Zverev’s domestic abuse case in Berlin ended Friday, hours before his semifinal began, because he reached an out-of-court settlement with his accuser, a former girlfriend.

No matter who wins the second semifinal, this will be the first French Open men’s final without Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer since 2004.

Djokovic was the defending champion in Paris, but he withdrew before the quarterfinals after tearing the meniscus in his right knee and had surgery this week. Because he failed to get back to the final, he will drop from atop the ATP rankings, allowing Sinner to rise a spot from No. 2, despite his defeat on Friday.

“Obviously disappointed how it ended, but it’s part of my growing and the process,” said Sinner, who won the Australian Open in January for his first major trophy. “The winner is happy, and then the loser tries to find a way to beat him the next time.”

The 22-year-old Italian showed up in Paris with a lingering hip injury that forced him to sit out the clay-court tournament in Rome last month. Alcaraz missed that event, too, because of a right forearm issue that he said made him afraid to hit his booming forehands at full force.

Both men experienced physical problems in the third set. Alcaraz’s right hand began to cramp. Sinner had his right forearm and left thigh massaged by a trainer during changeovers.

It brought to mind last year’s French Open semifinals, when Alcaraz got off to a terrific start against Djokovic but then dealt with full-body cramps that rendered the remainder of the match anticlimactic.

“I learned from last year’s match against Djokovic, when I was in the same position as today,” Alcaraz said. “I know that, in this moment, you have to be calm, you have to keep going, because the cramp is going to go away. You have to stay there, fighting.”

He and Sinner are seen as the future of men’s tennis. The present isn’t too shabby, either. Even though this was not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing of their nine head-to-head meetings — Alcaraz leads 5-4 — and they combined for 102 unforced errors, there were moments of brilliance that generated dueling clap-accompanied chants of each man’s first name from the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd.

In the fifth set, with shadows covering more than half the court, Alcaraz moved out front by sliding until he could reach across his body to snap a backhand passing winner for a break point. A forehand winner — one of his 30 in the match — made it 2-0 at the 3½-hour mark, earning a yell of “Vamos!” from his coach, 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Soon, it was 3-0, and Alcaraz was on his way.

“It was a great match. For sure, the sets he won, he played better in the important points,” Sinner said. “That was the key.”

Both players walloped the ball with such force that the ball-off-strings thuds elicited gasps from spectators in the middle of points.

Sinner, his rust-colored shirt a few shades darker than the clay, came out ready at the start of the match, barely ever missing, gliding more than grinding along the baseline, stretching his long limbs to get to nearly everything Alcaraz offered. Alcaraz, his right arm covered by a white sleeve, would deliver a powerful shot to a corner, punctuated with a grunt, and Sinner would somehow get to it, flip it back and draw a mistake.

Sinner led 4-0 and it took Alcaraz 20 minutes of striving to simply place a “1” beside his name on the scoreboard. The second set began inauspiciously for Alcaraz, who fell behind 2-0.

“I told myself,” Alcaraz said, “that it’s going to be a long match.”

He did not go quietly. Getting more aggressive and doing what he could to shorten points, Alcaraz turned things around right when he needed to, using a five-game run to take control of that set.

After Sinner took the third, Alcaraz pushed the proceedings to a fifth. He closed the fourth with a cross-court backhand winner, then raised his right fist and shook it.

Here’s how Alcaraz came through: He came up with a 32-23 edge in winners over the last two sets.

With his strokes, somehow, gaining zest, and the fans, somehow, getting louder, Alcaraz advanced at a tournament he grew up watching on TV at home in Spain as his countryman Nadal piled up a record 14 titles.

Not that it was easy.

“It’s one of the toughest matches that I’ve played, for sure,” Alcaraz said. “The toughest matches that I played in my short career have been against Jannik.”

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis