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“He could be a tennis player created by AI”: How can anyone beat Carlos Alcaraz?
It’s tempting to conclude that the 19-year-old has brought the evolution of tennis technique and style to an end point—and he appears to be shaping how the game will be played by most everyone, soon.
Published May 20, 2022
PRESS CONFERENCE: Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros
Alexander Zverev looked lost as he stood flat-footed on the red clay of Madrid’s Caja Magica. His long arms dangled from his sleeveless, turquoise tennis T, his often lively eyes expressionless, his visage signaling surrender for good reason: Ranked No. 3, reigning Olympic singles champion and former US Open finalist, he was being pulverized in this 2022 Madrid Masters final, 6-3, 5-1.
Five years earlier, almost to the week, Zverev had crafted a celebrated breakthrough, hoisting the trophy at the Italian Open. Just 20 then, he was said by many to be the heir to the Big Three. Yet here he was, five years later, getting crushed by 19-year-old sensation Carlos Alcaraz. Minutes later, Alcaraz won the match for his fifth career title—and second Masters of 2022—in what has in effect been less than 18 months of competition on the main tour.
Over that brief span, Alcaraz has shattered the ATP pecking order, sending fans as well as pundits—including the most savvy and even-handed—into paroxysms of acclaim, with nary a dissenting voice among them.
“Can you believe it?” said Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN analyst, in a conversation less than a week out from the start of the French Open. “Alcaraz will walk onto the grounds at Roland Garros the favorite, even with (Rafael) Nadal and (Novak) Djokovic in the draw.”
Anyone paying attention over the past few weeks probably understands. The No. 6 seed in Paris on a stunning roll.
“He is an amazing player, of course,” resurgent former French Open champion Stan Wawrinka told reporters as the Alcaraz frenzy mounted at final significant tune-up for Paris, the Italian Open. “He beat Rafa, he beat Novak [Djokovic], he beat Zverev, he beat [Stefanos] Tsitsipas. He beat all those players by just playing the game—and being better than them.”
He inspires me a lot. I really want to be like him. I look up to him. Tsitsipas, who is four years older than Alcaraz
He is a rare talent. Eighth-ranked Casper Ruud
So far he's the best player in the world, no question, this year. Djokovic, after taking a loss to Alcaraz in Madrid in three tiebreaks.
Gauging the disruption caused by Alcaraz, world No. 11 Cam Norrie spoke for many of his peers when he said, without a trace of bitterness, “I feel like my interviews are 50 percent about me and 50 percent about Carlos.”
So what does Alcaraz, who is also lauded as a welcome, sunny addition to the locker room, have that so many others do not? Really, it’s more a question of what he doesn’t have, which is simple: any weakness. He could be a tennis player created by AI. Watching him, it’s also clear that he is preternaturally mature. It’s tempting to conclude that he has brought the evolution of tennis technique and style to an end point, and he appears to be shaping how the game will be played by most everyone, soon.
“There’s nothing in his game that is going to go wrong,” says Craig O’Shannessey, the coach and data analyst who has worked with Djokovic. “No looseness, no nuts and bolts flying around under the hood in his technique. Even mentally, he just doesn’t beat himself.”
The consensus opinion that, despite the continuing presence of Nadal and Djokovic, Alcaraz has taken tennis to another level with his recent results raises a basic question, predicated on the track record of the two icons: How can anyone beat this guy?
Alcaraz will surely have some off days, and how he reacts to the pressure of his newfound status (the “X-factor that can’t be predicted,” according to McEnroe) is an open question. But game-based solutions are, for now, in short supply.
“You always knew that on faster surfaces Rafa was sometimes vulnerable,” McEnroe said. “[Roger] Federer, you could work the backhand, especially with high balls. Djokovic, some days you could out-grind him, get him making errors. It’s amazing in light of what those three guys did that Alcaraz seems to be taking it to a next level.”
Andy Murray, who joined the three icons to make up a vaunted Big Four, did have some luck against Alcaraz at the one-off fall edition of the Indian Wells in 2021. O’Shannessey watched Murray win that three-setter with signature tactical verve. He hit slow, high balls, denying Alcaraz pace or a comfortable strike zone.
“Alcaraz didn’t like having to generate everything himself from up so high,” O’Shannessey said. “But he’s come a long way from there in the past few months.”
O’Shannessey was in the coach’s box for Jan Lennard Struff when the powerful German knocked out Alcaraz in the third round of the 2021 French Open. Struff was able to “hit through” Alcaraz, and win some key points with serve-and-volley tennis.
“He (Alcaraz) will make mistakes on return if you mix up your serve really well. You have to use variety against him because he thrives on power tennis. He will take your power and shove it right back down your throat. That’s right in his wheelhouse.”
Struff’s win, O’Shannessey admitted, came on the heels of qualifier Alcaraz’s first big win in a major, his second-round upset of No. 28-ranked Nikoloz Basilashvili. O’Shannessey conceded, “I think Alcaraz was still very excited about the Basilashvili match. Maybe if you flipped the rounds there, Struff would have lost.”
O'Shannessey believes Alcaraz is a “perfect blend” of the Big Three, with the natural strength and combativeness of Nadal, the timing and willingness of Federer to move forward, and the clean strokes of Djokovic—capped with a willingness to volley.
“He’s more of an all-court player than Novak was at that same age.”
Indeed, Alcaraz has no signature quirks or flourishes, which makes his game resistant to critical analysis. Figuring out how to “open him up” on either side is like trying to open up, say, a barrel made of seamless aluminum. There’s just no place to get a handhold. As well, the right-hander has already had a significant impact on how the game is being played—most notably with his heavy use of the risky drop shot, even in critical situations.
“His ability with the drop shot has taken that stroke to the next level,” McEnroe said, adding that with the additional confidence Alcaraz has in the forecourt, and fluid movement that is “damned close” to that of Djokovic, the drop shot becomes that much deadlier.
O’Shannessey backed that theory up with hard stats. Tracking Alcaraz through his winning effort at the Miami Masters, O’Shannessey tallied 50 drop shots, with Alcaraz winning the point 35 times for a 70 percent conversion rate. Over the first three rounds, Alcaraz succeeded on 18 of 19 drop shot attempts, and at one point won 16 points in a row with that ploy, during his own as well as an opponent’s service games.
The rest of the tours took notice. By the time everyone decamped to Rome, players of every stripe and skill level were throwing their previous caution to the wind and attempting drop shots from every position on the court.
“People have taken a page from Alcaraz,” Tennis Channel analyst Andy Roddick said late in the Italian Open. “They are starting to mix in a lot more drop shots. Everyone is, like, all the cool kids are doing it.”
But few are capable of copycatting the mixture of pace and control that Alcaraz exhibits—or the calm demeanor that underpins the friendly mien anchored by a broad grin that can light up a room. But don’t let that smile fool you.
“He took out Rafa, Novak (and Zverev) in Madrid, and the way he does it, it’s all-out aggression,” Roddick said. “He can impose his game on these guys like maybe nobody else in the world. He can go out and punch them in the mouth, where other guys need an off day from Rafa or Novak to have a chance.”
As Zverev might say, “Ouch!”
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