Carlos Alcaraz Is Bending Tennis to His Will and Taking Over the Game
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Carlos Alcaraz Is Bending Tennis to His Will and Taking Over the Game

Aug 05, 2023


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Alcaraz, the defending U.S. Open men’s singles champion, has forced the best players in the world to adapt to his playing style, or risk losing for a long time.

By Matthew Futterman

A little after 5 p.m. last Wednesday, Carlos Alcaraz, racket bag over his shoulders, bounded into the U.S. Open player garden outside Arthur Ashe Stadium like a high school quarterback striding into the cafeteria on the first day of school.

He slapped hands and bro-hugged with new friends and old ones. He posed for selfies with other players and their hangers-on. He double-kissed and hugged a few kids his agent had brought along. A few minutes later, as he began a slow, autograph-filled walk to a practice court, a roar rose from beyond the high hedges.

Less than a year after his breakout win at the U.S. Open, and a little more than a month after his thrilling five-set win in the Wimbledon singles final over Novak Djokovic, there is no longer any question: Alcaraz has pushed tennis permanently into its future.

Djokovic, 36 years old and with 23 Grand Slam tournament singles titles, knows that his career is sunsetting, and that Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish star who has established himself as the game’s new standard, is at daybreak.

“The talk of our sport for the last two years, and, of course, deservedly because he has done things that probably no other, you know, teenager has ever done,” Djokovic said of Alcaraz during an interview last week.

Beyond all the accolades and the attention, Alcaraz is forcing the best players in the world into a devil’s choice — to change how they have trained to play for years and adapt to him, or to likely spend most of the next decade or more smothered by an athlete who plays on every inch of his side of the net and tries to hit balls to every inch of his opponent’s.

“There’s lots of power, not a lot of weaknesses, but also the all-court game, and the transition from neutral or defensive to offense is so quick,” said David Nainkin, who leads player development for the United States Tennis Association. “And now every player knows if he is going to compete with him, he’s going to have to do that as well.”

Alcaraz knows that better than anyone. He has said his goal, along with winning as often as possible, is to entertain and thrill the spectators who pack stadiums for his matches, which have also sent television ratings soaring. Winning efficiently is not enough. He wants to win spectacularly, showcasing his power and speed and touch from everywhere on the court.

“It’s dynamic,” Alcaraz has said time and again of his style.

For years, this was the sort of shift that might happen every half-decade or so, though for roughly the last 15 years, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and, for a while, Andy Murray turned the sport into an exclusive scrum of skill and wit. Each took a turn or two redrawing the tennis court to suit his style. First came Federer’s supreme and unmatched shotmaking, which ran into Nadal’s power and competitive fire, which ran into Djokovic’s relentless defense and angular creativity, which ran into Murray’s magical touch and movement.

Now Alcaraz has begun collecting the sport’s most important championships and also accomplishing the far larger feat of forcing nearly everyone to think and compete differently. He is inside their head every time they step on the practice court.

The days of winning by hitting a big serve and whaling forehands from a foot behind the baseline, a style that has mostly dominated play in this era, appear to be numbered, as everyone goes to school on the talent that, barring injury, they know will be at the top for the foreseeable future.

“There’s pretty much never going to be a chance to go from defense to offense in the middle of a point against him unless you are a ridiculous athlete like Novak,” Tommy Paul, the rising American who is ranked 14th in the world, said last week as he prepared in the Hamptons for the year’s final Grand Slam event. “Everyone now only has one choice. You got to get forward and go on offense before he does, because once he is on offense, you’re probably toast.”

Paul, 26, is worth listening to, since he is the rare player other than Djokovic who has consistently tested Alcaraz, winning two of their four meetings, including this summer in Toronto. A week later, near Cincinnati, Alcaraz needed all three sets to beat Paul, with two of those sets decided by tiebreakers.

Jannik Sinner, 22, is also in that category, winning three of their six meetings. At the moment, he has positioned himself as Alcaraz’s most likely rival during the next decade. Their five-and-a-half-hour, five-set battle in the quarterfinals at last year’s U.S. Open ended just before 3 a.m. and was arguably the match of the year.

In a sport that is all about matchups, Paul and Sinner are pretty sure they know why they can go toe-to-toe with Alcaraz while other players who have won far more prestigious titles often struggle. Both are plenty comfortable hitting the ball hard. They are able to cover the whole court. They aren’t afraid to move forward and use as much of the playing surface as possible to make Alcaraz move. They stay cool in tight moments because they are confident they won’t be forced outside their natural skill set.

“He causes me problems, but also I cause him problems,” Sinner, who was also preparing — and relaxing — last week in the Hamptons, said recently. “Sometimes I try to overpower him, which is sometimes also the only solution.”

It’s hard to overestimate the level of fascination with Alcaraz at every level of the sport.

Coco Gauff has been studying his matches to learn how to become better at staying calm and composed, noting that sometimes Alcaraz even smiles after making a mistake or losing an important point.

Murray went to the All England Club on the Sunday morning of the finals to take care of some business, with no intention of staying for the afternoon. But once there, he realized he should stick around, got his hands on a ticket for a Centre Court seat and sat mesmerized for nearly five hours, shooting videos on his phone and trying to figure out how Alcaraz was hanging with Djokovic, who had won the last four Wimbledon singles championships and seven overall. Murray paid special attention to Alcaraz’s movement, his return positions — and Djokovic’s as well — and when and how he decided to play aggressive and offensive tennis.

“You could sort of see Alcaraz learning as the match went on,” Murray said last month.

J.J. Wolf, the 24-year-old American ranked 44th, watched on television and decided then and there that he needed to hit the weight room.

“I’ve always been in decent shape, but he’s so physical,” Wolf said in early August at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., where he was already making plans for an off-season training program that would begin in November. “If I’m going to be able to play like that, I’m going to have to get stronger.”

Jimmy Arias, a star of the early 1980s who is now the director of tennis at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a leading talent incubator, has struggled in recent weeks to wrap his brain around how Alcaraz can hit a ball from 10 feet behind the baseline to a deep corner of the court and then get to the net, a play that forces opponents to be aggressive on that shot or else give Alcaraz an easy volley.

He compared it to when Federer destroyed Lleyton Hewitt in the 2004 U.S. Open final, 6-0, 7-6(3), 6-0. Hewitt could hit the ball as hard as anyone, but Federer had such exquisite timing, and could step in and return Hewitt’s shots so quickly, that the rhythm of the game that Hewitt had played with for years disappeared.

“The only thing you are going to be able to do is out-Alcaraz Alcaraz,” Arias said. “Good luck with that.”

Patrick McEnroe, the former pro and ESPN commentator who runs a top tennis academy in New York City with his brother, John, the seven-time Grand Slam winner, said he is now planning to incorporate parts of Alcaraz’s game into his curriculum this fall. Players will have to learn how to follow a big serve with a drop shot the way Alcaraz does, and how he uses the drop shot as an offensive weapon, coming in after it for an easy finish.

There was a time, not long ago, when a slice backhand was not all that important. Then Murray used one that rarely missed to become the world No. 1, and now no one serious about winning Wimbledon shows up without a slice. After Djokovic started hitting powerful second serves in pressure moments, hitting a 115-mile-per-hour second serve became almost normal.

Now Alcaraz has come along, following his serve with a drop shot and a topspin lob, a risky combination, serving for the Wimbledon title against Djokovic.

“He has taken the game to a different place,” McEnroe said. “He does things no one thought was possible.”

Matthew Futterman is a veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.” More about Matthew Futterman