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TenniStory: Carlos Alcaraz

It was 10:45 on Saturday morning at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Stadium Three, a delightfully cozy court that seats 6,270, was rapidly filling up for a second round BNP Paribas Open match, an intriguing contrast of experience and youth.

The veteran was Mackenzie McDonald, now 26 years old and just last month having reached a career-high ranking of 59. In the scheme of things, McDonald was a local favorite, having been raised in Northern California and subsequently starred at UCLA, where in 2016 he won the NCAA singles and doubles titles. As McDonald entered the court, a smattering of Bruins fans shouted.

But those blue and gold-infused cheers meant little in the face of the physicality, versatility and poise of McDonald’s opponent, 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz. In 95 minutes, Alcaraz earned a 6-3, 6-3 victory.

No one in men’s tennis currently better personifies youth in all its hopefulness than Alcaraz. A year ago, Alcaraz was ranked 132 in the world. He’s now soared up to 19, a rise highlighted by a run to the quarterfinals of last year’s US Open, where along the way he beat world No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas in a fifth-set tiebreaker.

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Alcaraz has won nine of 10 matches to start his 2022 season.

Alcaraz has won nine of 10 matches to start his 2022 season.

This was the first time I’d seen Alcaraz play in person. It’s an exceptionally impressive sight. Start with his locked-in concentration, a subdued yet alluring brand of intensity that starts from the coin flip, in the form of Alcaraz taking several kangaroo leaps. Continue with a sharp and crisp contemporary ball, a mix of topspin and velocity that penetrates the court and jumps off it. Add extraordinary speed, Alcaraz so adept at retrieval and forward movement that he can usually hurt an opponent from any position. During points, Alcaraz’s concentration is relentless. Once they end, he is exceptionally poker-faced. It all adds up to a tremendous zest for competition. Of all the tennis assets, that is one which likely cannot be taught. Alcaraz has it in abundance.

Through the first four games, the quality of play was high, McDonald’s flat strokes hanging in nicely. But even in those early stages, it was clear the movement off Alcaraz’s ball was going to strain and potentially compromise McDonald’s contact point. This can become like tooth decay, in time infecting everything. Serving at 2-2, 30-all, McDonald hit two consecutive double-faults, the kind of error he’d never make versus a less imposing opponent. From there, Alcaraz didn’t so much run out the set as smother McDonald with focus, movement and balls that often bended their way into the court.

A similar pattern took place in the second set. In the opening game, Alcaraz served and dropped three straight points – including a sloppy netted drop shot and an overcooked forehand – to hand McDonald a break point opportunity. It was swiftly erased with a roped backhand up the line that clipped the corner. At 2-2, McDonald broke serve, only to lose the next game. Once ahead 3-2, Alcaraz squeezed, moved and commanded the court with the kind of prowess that inspires comparisons to his fellow Spaniard, Rafael Nadal. But with a player as compelling as Alcaraz, those notions are only useful to a point. He is very much his own player, a teen blossoming by the minute. At this rate, everything from his game to the facilities he plays on will likely only get bigger.

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