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At Wimbledon, Carlos Alcaraz fends off Jan-Lennard Struff's barrage of big serves and relentless net rushes to survive in five
Not until the match was more than four hours old did the No. 5 seed take the lead, at 4-all in the fifth, before closing out the German Monday.
Published Jun 27, 2022
BEST OF THREE TC PROMO: Alcaraz among participants
For the second year in a row, Carlos Alcaraz began his Wimbledon campaign with a five-set victory.
That’s about all those two efforts have in common.
Twelve months ago, Alcaraz beat Yasutaka Uchiyama; Alcaraz was ranked No. 75, Uchiyama No. 116. That match was played on Court 6, a field court where on-site attendance likely did not crack 1,000 roving spectators.
This year at The Championships, Alcaraz is seeded fifth. His opener took place on No. 1 Court—12,345 seats and millions more across the globe, keen to see the progress of tennis’ latest supernova prodigy.
But not until the match was more than four hours old did Alcaraz take the lead, at 4-all in the fifth by breaking 155th-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff’s serve. In the next game, Alcaraz closed it out on his second match point, courtesy of a long backhand return. The final score: 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4.
“I would say to play four hours on grass is tougher than the other surfaces, even if there are not long rallies,” said Alcaraz. “I'm going to compare: [a] long rally here is like three or four long rallies in other surfaces.”
Don’t let Struff’s current ranking fool you. A Top 60 mainstay for much of his career, ranked as high as 29 less than two years ago, Struff suffered a foot injury that kept him off the tour for two months this spring. Coming into Wimbledon, his 2022 ATP match record was 2-10. He’d also beaten Alcaraz the only previous time they’d played, that victory coming last year in the third round of Roland Garros.
When it comes to defining the term “dangerous floater,” Struff is straight out of central casting—a 6’ 4” slasher. Well aware that he had zero chance of winning baseline rallies versus someone as fast and proficient as Alcaraz, Struff knew his best strategy was to deploy an arsenal that once upon a time was quite common at Wimbledon: big serves, dynamic returns, bold groundstrokes and relentless net-rushing. Struff today made his way to the net 114 times, winning 71 points, often with assured volleys. He also served 23 aces.
In the end, those two weapons let Struff down. Serving at 4-all, 40-30, Struff double-faulted. On the next point, Struff struck a makeable backhand volley long. These errors are often attributable to tennis’ intriguing mix of nerves and leg fatigue, the latter increasingly clear throughout the fifth set.
All year long, we’ve been witness to Alcaraz’s speed, brilliant shot-making and zest for competition. For much of this battle, though, Alcaraz was more witness than prosecutor, the racquet repeatedly taken out of his hands by Struff’s non-stop aggression, crisp execution and wire-to-wire poise. Having posed so many questions to opponents throughout 2022, it was remarkable to see Alcaraz forced to be at the mercy of so many inquiries. Then again, this was only Alcaraz’s third professional main-draw match on grass. Clearly, he was in uncharted territory.
“I knew at the beginning of the match that [it's] going to be really, really tough,” said Alcaraz. “Struff [has a] big serve, big shots. I know that I had to be really focus[ed] on the return today. The second ball after the return, to try to hit a good passing shot, good lobs. And, of course, the ball after the serve is going to be really important for me as well. He had a great return, great first shots.”
But no question-answer sequence more determined the outcome of this match than what happened in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Ahead two sets to one, seven points away from the upset, Struff began strongly. On the first point, he ripped a backhand return down the line, came to net and earned an opening mini-break. This was followed by an ace. Serving now at 2-0, Struff was in complete control of a rally and sought to finish it with a drop shot. But Alcaraz—arguably as fast anyone in contemporary tennis—dashed across the court and flicked a backhand crosscourt winner to get back on serve. Next, two straight aces from Alcaraz broke open the tiebreaker, the Spaniard’s energy soaring, Struff’s dropping. From 2-0 down, Alcaraz had won seven out of eight points to level the match.
Even then, though, the fifth was touch-and-go right until the 4-all game, Struff’s slight letdown giving Alcaraz just enough space to seize the moment and end a long opening day.