Tennis

Carlos, king in waiting

The big shout: Alcaraz defeated Nadal and Djokovic on successive days in the Madrid Open.

The big shout: Alcaraz defeated Nadal and Djokovic on successive days in the Madrid Open. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Not since a teenaged Rafael Nadal took the tennis world by storm in the spring and summer of 2005 has any male player generated as much buzz as Carlos Alcaraz. Back then, an 18-year-old Nadal came within two points of a straight-set victory over the then World No. 1 Roger Federer in his first-ever ATP Masters 1000 final in Miami, swept the prestigious French Open tune-ups in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome and entered the ATP top-10 en route.

In 2022, an 18-year-old Alcaraz reached the semifinals at Indian Wells, won the Miami Masters and clinched Barcelona to secure a place in the top-10, the youngest since Nadal to do so. It was followed by a victory in Madrid, where Alcaraz defeated Nadal and World No. 1 Novak Djokovic on successive days. This made him the first man to beat the duo at the same clay tournament and the youngest — he turned 19 during the event — anywhere.

So much so that even those who do not live and breathe tennis seem to be furiously feeling the vibes. And going into the French Open, which starts on Sunday, another significant achievement that can align Alcaraz’s career neatly alongside Nadal’s seems within the realm of possibility — of winning a first Major while still in the teens, a feat so remarkable that no man has managed it since Nadal in 2005.

Endless similarities

Roger this! Alcaraz’s forehand is closer to Federer’s — in shape, swing, follow-through and repeatability.

Roger this! Alcaraz’s forehand is closer to Federer’s — in shape, swing, follow-through and repeatability. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It will be to Alcaraz’s credit if he doesn’t allow Nadal’s historic high to become his cross to bear. While the similarities are seemingly endless — Spanish nationality and a fondness for sleeveless attire, among them — a few of the attributes he shares with his illustrious countryman can actually stand Alcaraz in good stead.

Groomed by a sports-loving family — his father and grandfather were both tennis players — and coached by a former French Open champion in Juan Carlos Ferrero, Alcaraz is absolutely fearless on court, but totally modest off it. There have been no instances of temper-induced tantrums — a staple of the men’s game of late — and on more than one occasion he has conceded a point that he felt was wrongly decided in his favour.

It helps that Alcaraz’s ascendency comes at a time when surface-centric stereotyping is slow to stick, unlike in the times when Nadal started, thus leading to dispassionate analysis. The two also aren’t stylistic analogues, game-wise, helping Alcaraz sidestep the entrapped feeling, even as he conjures among the fans an image of a Spanish matador quite like Nadal.

In an interview with Belgian newspaper Sudinfo, Justine Henin, a former World No. 1 and seven-time Major champion, said: “The comparison with Nadal, for me, is not good. It’s the precocity of the two that make them look alike. In terms of play, he seems more complete [at a similar stage] than Nadal, [Novak] Djokovic and Federer. For me he’s a good mix of the three.”

Alcaraz’s forehand is closer to Federer’s — in shape, swing, follow-through and repeatability. Like Djokovic, he is forceful off both wings and doesn’t need pace to generate power. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alcaraz’s first top-10 scalp and whom the Spaniard beat again in Barcelona recently, attested to this after the 2021 US Open defeat. “Ball speed was incredible,” the Greek said. “I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard. Took time to adjust.”

And Alcaraz (6’1” tall) plays first-strike tennis, without the height advantage that the current generation of top players, Daniil Medvedev (6’6”), Alexander Zverev (6’6”), Tsitsipas (6’4”) and Matteo Berrettini (6’5”), are blessed with. The ability to summon a point-ending shot when presented with the slightest of openings is a winning attribute. But when it doesn’t come off, and the player is as young as Alcaraz, it is often construed as lack of patience and bad shot-selection.

Composure, clarity of thought

In for the long haul: There are signs that Alcaraz has the temperament and lasting power, both crucial in the best-of-five-set format.

In for the long haul: There are signs that Alcaraz has the temperament and lasting power, both crucial in the best-of-five-set format. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It is here that Alcaraz towers above his peers with his composure and clarity of thought, against the toughest of opponents and under extreme duress. Journalist Matthew Willis pointed out that across the two wins over Nadal and Djokovic, Alcaraz hit 88 winners (of which only eight were aces) to the duo’s combined 34.

The ‘release shot’, a pressure-relieving pull of the trigger that transfers all the nervous energy into the stroke, often to the player’s detriment, rarely makes an appearance. It seems that Alcaraz has the feel for a shot, before, during and after execution. It is particularly evident in the way he drop-shots, lobs, kick-serves his way out of trouble, the last of which he used successfully to trouble even the greatest of returners in Djokovic.

“That’s what we are all a little bit surprised over, that he’s able to play with a lot of variety,” Mats Wilander, a seven-time Major winner, told Eurosport. “Of course, the variety for him is power, and also finesse, drop shots. I don’t really see him playing with the different spins on the backhand yet. I don’t think he’s there yet, but in terms of the drop shots and the power, I think he probably knows more than Rafa knew at 19.

“I can understand Rafa more because he said ‘this is how I play, and I’m going to find the best way to play the way I want to play, and I’m going to find the best way to play my opponent’, whereas Alcaraz says a little bit more, ‘okay, this is what I kind of need to do, the guy is far behind [the baseline], I’m going to hit some drop shots’. If you are too close to the baseline, then Carlos is going to play with power, and a little bit of height and push the guy back.”

Whether Alcaraz can extend this meteoric rise and the accompanying success on the Grand Slam stage will be clear over the coming fortnight. For now, he has upended tennis’ line of succession by leapfrogging Zverev, Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Berrettini. He certainly has the pedigree; this time last year, he had just broken into the top-100 but now he is World No. 6, owner of two Masters titles and a 28-3 win-loss record this year, including 8-2 against top-10 players.

Carlos Alcaraz outlasted Djokovic over 3 hours and 35 minutes, from a set down, an accomplishment beyond most players’ reach, in the the semi-final of Madrid Open, on 7 May, 2022.

Carlos Alcaraz outlasted Djokovic over 3 hours and 35 minutes, from a set down, an accomplishment beyond most players’ reach, in the the semi-final of Madrid Open, on 7 May, 2022. | Photo Credit: @alcarazcarlos03/twitter

There are signs that he has the temperament and lasting power to match, both crucial in the long-drawn, best-of-five-set format. In the win over Tsitsipas in New York, he digested a bagel in the fourth set to take the fifth in a tie-break. He beat Nadal in Madrid after surviving a sprained ankle and a mid-match blip. He outlasted Djokovic over 3 hours and 35 minutes, from a set down, an accomplishment beyond most players’ reach.

Opening the door

But history shows that glory in the French capital is contingent on how much Nadal’s mask of invincibility — fashioned over the course of a record 13 Roland-Garros titles — slips. This time, a flaring up of the chronic foot injury has opened up an opportunity for the others and some room for Alcaraz to be spoken of in the same breath.

“People are going to think that I’m one of the favourites to win Roland-Garros,” Alcaraz said after the triumph in Madrid. “I don’t have it as tension, I have it as motivation. I really look forward to going to Paris, to fight for the Grand Slam, and to show my great level in a Grand Slam, too.”


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Printable version | Jun 10, 2022 3:46:40 am | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/tennis/carlos-king-in-waiting/article65440937.ece