JA month ago, as the tennis tours shifted to the North American hardcourt season in early August, Carlos Alcaraz felt overwhelmed by his early success. The early stages of his rise had seemed so easy – he won big titles for the fun of it, outplayed Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, and the Spaniard climbed the rankings with a smile on his face. But now he was dealing with the baggage that had accompanied his ascent. The pressure and the expectations, the shiny new target on his back.
While Alcaraz put on a brave face and rode with the punches during these events, he spoke candidly as he sat with the US Open trophy by his side and thought back on the past few months. “I kinda lost the joy,” he said. “I felt the pressure. I couldn’t smile on the court, which I do in every game, in every tournament.
The pressure he felt was reflected in his results. After suffering numerous defeats earlier this summer against young players even more motivated to beat him, he fell in his first game in Montreal. In Cincinnati, he was edged out by Cameron Norrie in a close quarter-final. He arrives in New York with the simple hope of rediscovering his joy: “I came here just to enjoy, you know? Smile on the court, love to play tennis,” he said.
For Juan Carlos Ferrero, the coach of Alcaraz, a possible solution to regaining his sense of freedom and happiness was simply to execute the style of play that would most evoke those feelings. They spent the days leading up to the US Open working on Alcaraz getting as close to the net as he could, leaping on short balls and sneaking into the forecourt.
It’s a reflection of Alcaraz’s stunning, layered talents that he zoomed in on a facet of his style and used it to race through the tournament, win his first Grand Slam title and become the first No. in adolescents. During his 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(1), 6-3 victory over Casper Ruud in the final, he served and stole 25 times on his own. On the big points, Alcaraz had the clarity to keep going, saving both set points in the pivotal third set with volleys without nerves.
As he rose, the Spaniard received countless comparisons to recent big names Nadal, Djokovic and his idol Roger Federer. It’s understandable on the one hand – some small details in his style are reminiscent of some of the Big Three. These were the only legends he knew and he naturally studied them throughout his development.
Such comparisons are also lazy. Alcaraz is his own player, follows his own path, and the brand of tennis he plays is unique. The style he’s built through the combination of his athleticism, high-octane shooting, seemingly endless skill and explosiveness on the court is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, as is the case with legends before him.
With everything he has at his disposal, it’s clear that Alcaraz has the ability to win many Grand Slam titles and establish himself as the dominant player of the next decade and more. But so many things can happen in the course of a career: injuries, mental stagnation and even a big new rival. The tennis landscape can change quickly.
Any lasting success will rely on him continuing to grow as a player, never falling into a comfort zone. He’s already such a complete player, but he still has so much room for improvement. If he improves his serve and learns to consistently hit his points, for example, the rest of the world is in trouble.
For Alcaraz, the biggest surprise of this first title run was the resilience he constantly called upon. In his fourth-round match against Marin Cilic, he was trailed by a break early in the fifth. As he and Jannik Sinner traded blows for five hours 15 minutes until 2:50 a.m. in the quarter-finals, he faced match point at 5-4 in the fourth set on Sinner’s serve. In the semi-final against Frances Tiafoe, the American pushed him back several times. Each time, he recovered and moved on.
At every difficult moment on the pitch, Alcaraz repeats three simple words to himself – the three Cs: “Cabeza, corazon, cojones.” Head, heart and bullets. His grandfather, Carlos Alcaraz Lerma, repeated these words at every tournament as he was still just a child dreaming of future success. He’s exemplified every quality in his career so far, and it’s just getting started.
Carlos Alcaraz regains his freedom with an exhilarating victory at the US Open | Tumaini Carayol