Surface Fracture

Watching a drop shot flutter over the net and bounce twice on your side of the court is one of the most frustrating feelings in tennis. Some droppers are reachable and attackable, and others are reachable, but some are just impossible to get. Stefanos Tsitsipas found himself on the receiving end of a drop shot from the latter category at 4-all and break point down late in the first set of his Barcelona quarterfinal against Carlos Alcaraz. He sprinted towards the ball; he didn’t get that close to getting there. He was visibly frustrated, but also appeared to understand that he couldn’t have run any faster, so settled on tapping the ball gently towards the back of the court.

Alcaraz served out the first set easily, but the match’s flow seemed to have leveled early in the second. Tsitsipas began a streak of six consecutive points won on serve, holding at love and then going up 30-love at 1-all. Alcaraz then randomly caught fire. He blasted a return winner to get to 30-15. After a Tsitsipas error, Alcaraz belted a deep return that Tsitsipas half-volleyed down the line with pace and weight. It was a stunning shot. Alcaraz ran it down and slid into a backhand winner down the same line. On break point, he obliterated a backhand return winner down the line.

“He [Tsitsipas] was up 30-love!” cried a Tennis TV commentator in awe. “And he did nothing wrong!” This isn’t entirely true, considering Tsitsipas’s unforced error at 30-15, but Alcaraz’s best level is nothing short of awe-inducing. It’s like every groundstroke he hits has the weight of a boulder. He won’t miss. His opponent gets reduced to a bystander. “Blowing away the world #5 on a clay court,” echoed another commentator.

This, I think, is the scariest thing about Alcaraz in the context of the matchup: when he peaks, there seems to be little Tsitsipas can do. In this match, Alcaraz didn’t cool off until he led 4-1 with a double break in the second set, and though Tsitsipas came back to win that set in an incredible turnaround, Alcaraz ran off four more games in a row during the third set. Given that Alcaraz won seven games in a row against Tsitsipas in Miami, this is now an alarming trend. Tsitsipas has had a couple similar streaks, though those have had more to do with Alcaraz’s misfires — when the Spaniard peaks, his opponent’s level becomes almost irrelevant.

Alcaraz can still lose his peak level as easily as he finds it, but he has so many weapons that he tends to play himself out of slumps quickly. (In this match, a lengthy bathroom break after the second set may have helped him regain some momentum.) He is still not yet 19 years old. He will be in the top ten after Barcelona ends.

*****

Tsitsipas loves clay. He’s amazing at playing on it. He gets time to load up on his forehand, though that stroke is fantastic on all surfaces. More importantly, he gets time to take big swings on the return of serve. When he tries that on hard court, shanks and bad misses are frequent, but on clay, his returns are more often than not heavy or deep. From the baseline, he can either wind up on his backhand or hit forehands from the ad side, and either way, he ends up pushing his opponents back. Clay amplifies his strengths and papers over his weaknesses. It’s a match made in heaven. Tsitsipas has just become the first man to defend the Monte-Carlo title since Rafael Nadal in 2018.

Tsitsipas has a matchup problem against Carlos Alcaraz, though they had only played twice before today’s clash in Barcelona. Alcaraz is maniacally fast, so he can neutralize Tsitsipas’s offensive capabilities better than most. Worse, Alcaraz has plenty of firepower of his own, from both wings — not only can he pummel Tsitsipas’s weaker backhand side, he breaks even or better in the forehand-to-forehand exchanges. He hit 27 forehand winners today. Tsitsipas had seven. Alcaraz, despite still being shy of his 19th birthday while Tsitsipas has been in the top ten for two and a half years at this point, now leads the head-to-head 3-0. The first match was a brutally close five-setter at the U.S. Open, but the second match, in Miami, seemed more telling. Tsitsipas played incredible tennis for several games, taking a 5-2 lead, but Alcaraz had another blistering streak and didn’t cool off until he led 7-5, 2-0. He went on to win in straight sets.

While Tsitsipas is significantly better on clay than hard courts, Alcaraz has no such disparity in aptitude between the surfaces. He just won a Masters 1000 on hard court, something Tsitsipas has never done (though he did win the more prestigious World Tour Finals in 2019). Thus, Tsitsipas had quite a bit at stake in the third edition of the rivalry. If he had won, he could have reaffirmed himself as the third favorite for Roland-Garros and established superiority over the increasingly dangerous Alcaraz on at least one surface. Marking his territory, so to speak.

But with this loss? Alcaraz moves to 3-0 in the head-to-head, now with a win on Tsitsipas’s best surface despite being almost four full years younger and probably further away from his peak. (It’s tough to see this rivalry being more favorable to Tsitsipas when he is 27 and Alcaraz is 22.) Tsitsipas, to me, has no clear golden opportunity to break the ice, what with Alcaraz also being great on clay and having demonstrated the ability to play five-setters. The comparison to the early days of the Federer-Nadal rivalry is lazy, but one player clearly has a solid edge tactically and mentally, and it’s Alcaraz. Tsitsipas is obviously going to remain a top-tier contender on clay, and a second-tier contender on hard. Alcaraz being around is far from the end of the world for him, but it’s never ideal to have one player on tour who you can’t beat, and that player being younger than you makes it all the more difficult. This is Nadal talking about Djokovic in his autobiography:

“Everybody still had their eyes on Federer and me, but we both knew Djokovic was the up-and-coming star and that our dual dominance was going to be more at risk from him than from any other player. Disconcertingly, he was also younger than me… This younger guy was now beating me, and even when I won, he was giving me very tough games. Federer would presumably retire before I did, assuming injury didn’t do me in. Djokovic would be dogging me right to the end of my career, trying everything to jump ahead of me in the rankings.”

Rafael Nadal, Rafa

Though this was written over a decade ago, it’s turned out to be true to this day. Djokovic has constantly tormented Nadal since the time of that writing, beating him a couple dozen times and staying above him in the rankings with only a few lulls. It looks like Djokovic has the longevity edge as well. A younger rival is rarely a good thing. If you beat them, you’re merely doing your job, while they get to ride the adoration of upset-hungry crowds and play relatively without pressure.

*****

Surfaces play a huge role in rivalries. Tsitsipas faced a similarly pressured match to today’s when he played Daniil Medvedev at Roland-Garros last year — Medvedev was beating him consistently on hard — and Tsitsipas destroyed him, not even conceding a set. Nadal is 19-8 against Djokovic on clay but 7-20 against him on hard courts. Surfaces can change everything; they shake time, ball bounce, and confidence. Despite the 0-2 record against Alcaraz and the fact that Tsitsipas could well have been tired from his recent title run in Monte-Carlo, I had him as the favorite to win this match.

That Alcaraz was able to take Tsitsipas down on clay as well as hard is so impressive, and while the lull late in the second set was worrisome, I’m starting to think that it didn’t matter so much. Had it not happened, Alcaraz would have won 6-2 in the second set instead of 6-2 in the third set; either way, he was nowhere close to losing. By the end of the match, though he again got nervy at 4-1 in the decider, Alcaraz looked calm. He loosed a drop shot winner to set up match point that was brutally casual. He didn’t even celebrate after it. His backhand did heavy damage, a couple unreal ones helping him to 5-1 in the third, and he outhit Tsitsipas from the forehand side. Alcaraz did have more unforced errors, but the 17-13 tally was easily close enough for the young Spaniard’s offense to lift him into the ascendancy.

If playing on the clay isn’t a big enough leg up for Tsitsipas to beat Alcaraz, what will be? It isn’t as if Tsitsipas played badly in any of their three matches so far, yet Alcaraz has won the last two comfortably. The matches have all been extremely entertaining, with no shortage of tension, but they’ve had the same winner. Tsitsipas has played very well at times in the last six months — the Australian Open quarterfinal against Sinner, the Monte-Carlo semifinal against Zverev — but he hasn’t shown anything we didn’t already know he was capable of. Alcaraz is improving at a fierce rate. There’s no reason to think this will stop after Barcelona, and Alcaraz, right now, is already too much for Tsitsipas.

Tsitsipas is a good problem solver. He had a matchup issue with Felix Auger-Aliassime a couple years back, and Tsitsipas has now won five of their last six meetings. Alcaraz is a different beast, though. He’s lost all of three matches this year, two of them against top players, and he seems to be getting better every tournament. Tsitsipas is going to be just fine — it’s probably the players below him in the top ten who should be more worried about Alcaraz — but he now has a tormentor on tour, and that tormentor is probably going to be around for a long time. Tsitsipas is way too good of a player for this not to happen soon, but I am not sure how or when he will beat Alcaraz. Something big needs to change.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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