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Carlos Alcaraz has looked almost human in Cincinnati—how long can he live on the edge?
His three wins, over 55th-ranked Jordan Thompson, 13th-ranked Tommy Paul, and 70th-ranked Max Purcell, have all gone three sets.
Published Aug 18, 2023
CINCINNATI, Ohio—Early in the Western & Southern Open, Carlos Alcaraz went out to practice on a distant side court. A capacity crowd trekked out to watch him, and when he walked through the gates, many stood up to whoop and cheer and pledge their love. Alcaraz flashed his familiar toothy, spontaneous smile and waved his racquet in their direction. As he warmed up, fans shrieked after every time he rifled a hard-hit forehand or carved out a delicate drop shot.
It was just another day in the charmed life of Carlitos, it seemed. But after about 10 minutes of hitting, Alcaraz’s smile had mostly vanished, replaced by a more look of mild frustration and concern. He was struggling to find any consistency, especially with his most aggressive swings.
For most of this week, Alcaraz has played like he practiced that day. Nothing has come easily for him. His three wins, over 55th-ranked Jordan Thompson, 13th-ranked Tommy Paul, and 70th-ranked Max Purcell, have all gone three sets. He has started slowly, but even when he seems to right the ship and looks ready to romp to victory, he’ll begin missing again. He had trouble with Thompson’s changes of pace and sudden net charges, Paul’s muscular baseline game, and Purcell’s serve and volley. His coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, has been more vocal than normal in his attempts to fire him up.
Most frustrating for Alcaraz has been his inability to come up with the big shot on break points. He’s 14 of 49 on them in his three matches. If you add in his three also-shaky matches in Toronto last week, he’s 20 of 67. Many of those points have been lost on errors, especially balls hit into the net, as if he’s getting tight and not swinging freely in the important moments.
Maybe it’s a natural letdown after such a high at Wimbledon. Or maybe he’s still adjusting to different courts and tough conditions. Or maybe he’s just not destined to dominate as relentlessly as the Big 3 did. But after scaling the sport’s mountaintop by beating Novak Djokovic in one of the great finals in Grand Slam history, Alcaraz has looked mortal so far this month. He has shown flashes of anger, tossed a racquet, and grown exasperated by the rainy and windy conditions that have delayed his matches and played havoc with his shots. It probably hasn’t helped that the courts here are faster than just about anywhere else, and the players have been complaining that the balls are too quick to control.
Of course, Alcaraz’s opponents have done everything they can to make life difficult for him. To their credit, none of them have rolled over or showed a lack of self-belief on court, and all of them have come in with a clear game plan that has borne fruit. Maybe it’s Alcaraz’s age and relative lack of experience, but his opponents don’t tend to show the same sense of awe toward him—at least not yet—that the Big 3’s opponents showed for so long. Instead, they’ve been energized by the opportunity to face the world No. 1 and take a turn in the spotlight that follows him wherever he goes.
Alcaraz has noticed.
“I feel the opponents, when they are playing against me, I’m going to say, well, they play a little bit better,” he said after beating Purcell, who started out looking like the second coming of his Aussie countryman Pat Rafter.
Paul confirms that he relishes the Alcaraz experience.
“I like playing anyone that’s, like, a big challenge,” he said. “He’s obviously, right now, the best player in the world. And when you have those matchups on Centre Court—you’re always going to be on Centre Court when you’re playing No. 1 in the world, and I really enjoy playing those matches. So yeah, I would say it’s fun.”
Underdogs will say they have nothing to lose, but that’s only true until they get a lead—then they do have something to lose. In that sense, Alcaraz’s reputation is a double-edged sword. While it can inspire his opponents in the early going, it can make them tight when they’re ahead, or when the prospect of winning becomes real. Thompson struggled to serve out sets against him, Paul’s level dropped late in the third, and Purcell played perhaps his worst game of the match at 4-4 in the third. Knocking out the champ is never easy.
As for Alcaraz, he seems to be staying patient with himself. It’s hard to imagine him losing any of his self-belief at this point.
“I feel like I’m playing well,” he said on Friday. “Obviously not my best. I can increase my level, of course.”
If the ultimate goal is to win the US Open, it’s hard to say how much his performances in Toronto and Cincy will matter. He lost early at both events last year, and still went on to win the Open. Best-of-five may suit his daredevil, up-and-down style better; it gives him more time to go through an erratic patch and find his range again. The good thing in Cincy is that, despite the ups and downs, he's into the semifinals, where he’ll face Hubert Hurkacz on Saturday.
Alcaraz may never be immune from dips and lulls. He’s not a guy, like his countryman Rafael Nadal, who sweats every unforced error or squandered break point. Fortunately for him, the big, ambitious,, swing-for-the-fences style that can get him in trouble is exactly what can get him back out of it.