Carlos Alcaraz is the most exciting young ATP player on tour right now. The eighteen-year-old’s game is strikingly mature, from his all-world forehand and return game to his soft touch. He’s mastered areas that players his senior by a decade haven’t come close to. He hadn’t played since the Australian Open, where he came close to a spectacular comeback against Berrettini, so I had to watch his first-round match in Rio against Jaume Munar.
Watching Alcaraz is obviously exhilarating, because of his power-packed groundstrokes and his energy and his willingness to run for everything, but it can be frustrating at times. He has a weird habit of standing in his backhand corner to blast forehands — not forehands that do a whole lot, though, like he hasn’t realized there should be a point to sacrificing court position. He’s also got a great backhand, one more than capable of delivering the shot quality achieved by his more passive inside-out forehands. Sometimes it seems that he forgets about the variety in his game. He has the tools to be a ballbasher and defaulted into that mode for part of the match against Munar. When he found his accuracy and turned to his drop shots and volleys more, he barely lost a game.
Such errors are to be expected of an eighteen-year-old, of course. The fact that Alcaraz’s game is virtually ready to go at the highest level already, and his distance from the top can be closed by him growing into it, is remarkable. I felt similarly about Medvedev for a while — his tennis had so few blind spots that I got frustrated when he spiraled tactically, like his shots wanted to carry him to glory, he just wasn’t letting them.
Alcaraz is ranked 29th, but it feels like a matter of months until he passes half the people ahead of him. Despite Cristian Garín being ten spots higher, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call him a better player than Alcaraz. The eighteen-year-old losing to any player outside the top ten, to me, would be an upset.
Alcaraz is so intensely talented that I feel impatient when I watch him play. To me, it’s nearly inevitable that he’ll win majors someday, and while following him in his developmental years is fun, part of me wants to fast-forward to the climax of the movie to see how he does at his best. His potential is nearly limitless, so when he lost the first set to Munar, 6-2, I felt almost personally inconvenienced. If he loses this match, it’ll take him longer to get to the top. Sometimes, it seems like Alcaraz suffers from this same kind of impatience. He tries to do too much with his forehand, as if every winner he hits will move him up a spot in the rankings. He rushes, trying to finish points too quickly when he could win them by pacing himself a bit more. It’s understandable — Alcaraz must know, on some level, that he has immense potential. Practically all players aspire to be world number one, but most of them have tangible hurdles separating them from their goal: a suspect backhand, or a mental block, or a lack of surface versatility. Alcaraz doesn’t really have any of these issues. If he can stay out of his own way, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t end up where he wants to go.
Munar didn’t make things easy for Alcaraz. Clothed in the unfortunate Adidas kit that makes its wearers appear to have shit themselves, he is your quintessential clay-courter. He made great use of the surface; though he didn’t try to attack, he hit with safety and spin. Playing against this style can mess with a player’s head. If the opponent is making few errors, all the pressure is on the player with greater firepower (Alcaraz in this case) to finish points. Even if they have the requisite heft on their shots to hit winners, good enough execution of the wall-mode strategy can make them think they don’t, or that they have to go for the lines. Extreme patience is required to beat such an opponent. It was as if Alcaraz was taking an exam that wasn’t particularly challenging, but there were hundreds of questions and each of them took ten minutes to finish. Beating a good clay-court player is manageable, if you can avoid losing your mind in the process. It was a microcosm of the challenges Alcaraz faces as he tries to climb the ladder on tour.
And for a set, Alcaraz seemed to have lost his mind. Despite having the tools to engage in long rallies, he tried to end points quickly. His bad form even bled into the second set — serving to open the frame, he began with a double fault and two forehand errors. The mistakes were so poor I expected him to get broken at love.
Then, suddenly and inexplicably, Alcaraz found his game. Not only did he hold from love-40 down, he sprinted through the final two sets: 6-2, 6-1. He looked brilliant at times: there was one point, a point where Alcaraz shanked a return that sat up for Munar to hit a bouncing smash. Alcaraz got it back, defended his way back into the point, then took a Munar forehand on the rise and belted a sizzling backhand winner back into the deuce corner. “Bravo,” Munar called as the backhand flew into the back wall.
Alcaraz demonstrated his coolheadedness as well. At one stage, he set up for a baseline smash and hammered it into the ground, the ball not even reaching the net. He bent into a crouch and gently tapped the clay a couple times with his racket. The crowd oohed and jeered a bit. Alcaraz got up, walked to the line, and won the next point with a service winner.
There’s something entrancing about watching a clay court stretched out over my laptop screen, perhaps because I know the players are going to use every inch of it, painting it with their slides and footwork. The court in Rio is tan and smooth. Ball marks left by serves were visible in the service boxes, but just barely. Streaks and footprints rode the baseline like bold brushstrokes, a painting in progress.