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Carlos Alcaraz: No longer an outsider looking in
The 18-year-old comes into 2022 on the back of a breakthrough season, and began his next chapter Monday at the Australian Open—with a straight-set win.
Published Jan 17, 2022
TENNISTORY: Carlos Alcaraz
There’s an alluring maturity that radiates from Carlos Alcaraz, a fascinating juxtaposition of the jovial juvenile that is equally hypnotic. At 18, he’s living the dream by his own admission, unmistakable through the sprightly smile tattooed on his face. He’s broken into the proverbial cool club at his school, the ATP Tour, yet the humility implanted inside him hasn’t been compromised by joining an upgraded clique.
“it’s really important to stay humble,” he shared with my colleague Charlotte Farrant in Villena, Spain this past December.
“This is what I thought when I was outside. Live with the top players, learn from them, be with them in the tour. This is what I wanted when I was younger, and it’s amazing.”
Alcaraz’s 2021 season erupted with breakthrough moments, yet predictably, he’s taking none for granted. Self-expectations were exceeded when he finished well above the Top 50 at No. 32 in the year-end rankings. “I had a better year than I thought,” he streamlines. That sort of grounded approach is a quality valued—and shared—by coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, who knows exactly what it takes to fulfill the dreams that Alcaraz is chasing.
While Ferrero was surprised by his pupil’s success in the pair’s first full season at the tour level, he had reason to believe it would come sooner or later. Take the early practices he saw before the two began collaborating, where Ferrero would soon learn unlike the easily amused boy off the court, the 14-year-old on it was an aggressive character in every sense of the way: chipping and charging, finding other ways to rush the net, pulling out the lob.
It wasn’t the standard brand of tennis for a Spaniard to be playing, he thought.
“I saw him practicing with people when he was 14, 15, 16, with people that have such a level and he was adapting his game to that game, so it was very normal to see him play at that level,” the 2003 Roland Garros champion says of Alcaraz’s results last year.
“I think he adapted very well and very fast to the tour. Already, he knows every single player on the tour, shakes hands and says hello to anyone.”
For some time now due to his climb into the spotlight, Alcaraz has faced comparisons to a global icon from his nation. Rafael Nadal was 19 when he won his first major at the French Open and like Alcaraz, has a tenacious spirit on the match stage and a tranquil temperament when a racquet isn’t in hand. But Nadal’s preferred style doesn’t exactly match Alcaraz’s inclination to frequently force the issue.
Rather than make judgments or narrow the scope to the left-hander, I wondered how Alcaraz identified with the three legends he often observed while shaping his own identity on the baseline.
“I think like Rafa, I have the competition in my veins, let’s say that. I’m a competitive guy. With Djokovic, I will say the physical part. I think we are elastic guys, both of us. And with Federer, let’s say the aggressive part of the game. He does a lot of drop shots, go to the net, serve and volley,” he believes.
Understandably, Ferrero wants to keep pressure at bay where possible. Mental fortitude was an area he targeted enriching immediately when they began working together in September 2018. Coping with stressful situations and responding to “bad moments” have been areas of development from the start and in 2021, Alcaraz showed his excellence in Ferrero’s classroom by repeatedly learning from new experiences and championing those encounters into future orders of business.
In May, Alcaraz faced Nadal for the first time—at Madrid no less. After losing convincingly, he won a Challenger title in his next event. In June, he met world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev at Wimbledon. After a routine defeat, Alcaraz won his first ATP title in Umag in his subsequent appearance. At the US Open, he outclassed No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas in a final-set tiebreaker to reach the second week of a major for the first time, then backed it up with another five-set victory. He lost to Andy Murray at Indian Wells, then exacted revenge at his following tournament. He let a 5-0 second-set lead evaporate in a rough Paris Masters exit, then proceeded to cap the year with a triumphant Next Gen ATP Finals performance.
“He believes he can win every match that he plays, which is very important to be one of the best. He wants to do all the things like perfect,” says Ferrero.
“I am a hard worker. The end is an important part of the training, [knowing] in the fifth set or tough moments in the match, you can handle it in a great way. I feel I am improving on that,” adds Alcaraz. “I think this is an important part of tennis, to feel ready physically. To the tough moments, tough matches in a Grand Slam, best of five you have to be ready.
“I remember when I was younger, I couldn’t handle those tough moments in a correct way, and now I am able to do that."
I think like Rafa, I have the competition in my veins, let’s say that.
Alcaraz is one of the few names of note yet to dig their heels into a match setting Down Under this year. The Murcia native is set to make his 2022 debut at the Australian Open on Monday against qualifier Alejandro Tabilo of Chile. (Editor's Note: Alcaraz won with ease, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.) He’s seeded at a major for the first time, at No. 31, and is in the quarter of the draw that first boasted Djokovic at the top and now features a lucky loser ranked No. 150. That opening will naturally amplify Alcaraz’s narrative as a viable contender for a major breakthrough.
What can fans and the media look for in his progression as a competitor? Improvements to every facet of his game are compulsory, asserts Ferrero, but the former world No. 1 has his essentials in mind.
“He already has the power to serve huge, like 220 [k.p.h.] so on that part we just have to work on the consistency. We are working to improve a little bit on the speed of the returning,” he says.
“He’s still 18 years old, but he has a tennis life already, and he has to be professional, and off the court is one of the parts I’m working more.”
When Alcaraz first steps foot on Court 7 at Melbourne Park, he’ll surely feel the weight of getting off the starting blocks again. But as someone who embodies a mantra “to be happy all day” and is assured results will yield from the work he’s putting in, expect the mature competitor beyond his years to soon sprint away with a smile or two or 100.