JA month ago, as the tennis tours headed into the North American hard court season in early August, Carlos Alcaraz felt weighed down by his quick success. The early stages of his rise looked so easy – he won major titles for fun, 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 accompanied his rise. The pressure and expectations, the shiny new target on his back.
While Alcaraz put on a brave face and rolled with the punches during these events, he spoke candidly as he sat with the US Open trophy at his side and looked back on the past few months. “I lost my joy a little bit,” he said. “I felt the pressure. I couldn’t smile on the pitch, as I do in every match, in every tournament.”
The pressure he felt was reflected in his results. After suffering several losses earlier in the summer to young players who were even more motivated to beat him, he fell in his first match in Montreal. In Cincinnati, he was worn down by Cameron Norrie in a tight quarterfinal. He arrived in New York with the simple hope of recapturing his joy: “I just came here to enjoy myself, you know? To smile on the court, to enjoy tennis,” he said.
For Juan Carlos Ferrero, Alcaraz’s coach, a possible solution to recapture a 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, hitting short balls and forehands.
It’s a reflection of Alcaraz’s astonishing, multi-layered talents that he zoomed in on one aspect of his style and used it to power through the tournament, win his first grand slam title and become the first teenage men’s No.1. During his 6-4 , 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3 defeat of Casper Ruud in the final, he served and volleyed 25 times alone. At big points, Alcaraz had the clarity to keep going, saving both set points in the pivotal third set with soulless volleys.
As his rise continues, the Spaniard has received countless comparisons to recent greats Nadal, Djokovic and his idol Roger Federer. It’s understandable on the one hand – some small details of his style are reminiscent of some of the big three. They are the only legends he has known and of course he has studied them throughout his growth.
Such comparisons are also lazy. Alcaraz is his own player, he follows his own path, and the brand of tennis he plays is unique in its own right. The style he’s built through his combination of athleticism, high-octane shooting, seemingly endless skills and explosiveness around the court is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, just like the legends before him.
With all that at his disposal, it’s clear that Alcaraz has the ability to win multiple Grand Slam titles and establish himself as the dominant player of the next decade and beyond. But a lot can happen during a career – injuries, mental stagnation and even a great new opponent. The landscape of tennis can change quickly.
Any lasting success will rely on him continuing to develop as a player, never falling into a comfort zone. He is already such a complete player, but he still has a lot of room for improvement. If, for example, he improves his serve and learns how to consistently hit his forehands, for example, the rest of the world has a problem.
For Alcaraz, the biggest surprise of this first title run was the resilience he consistently invoked. In his fourth round match against Marin Cilic, he fell behind with a break early in the fifth. As he and Jannik Sinner traded blows for five hours and 15 minutes until 2.50am. in the quarterfinals, he faced a match point at 5–4 in the fourth set on Sinner’s serve. In the semi-final against Francis Tiafoe, the American took him back several times. Each time he recovered and moved on.
In every difficult moment on the pitch, Alcaraz repeats three simple words to himself – the three C’s:Cabeza, corazon, cojones.” Head, heart and balls. His grandfather, Carlos Alcaraz Lerma, repeated these words at every tournament since he was still a child dreaming of future success. He has shown every quality in his career so far, and it has only just begun.