Fangs: The Mark of a Champion

By Archit Suresh

Grit. Toughness. Killer. The “IT” Factor. Clutch.

There’s a lot of terms that we use to describe the mentality of the top players in the game. Listeners of The Tennis Podcast will know about the idea of a player having fangs, a term first coined by Mary Carillo to make sense of something that is incomprehensible. Fangs is a term used to describe players who display ruthlessness and aggression to impose themselves and finish off opponents, making them greater than the sum of their athletic and tennis-playing parts. Fangs are the ability to bring out your best tennis when it is needed most. It’s the idea that no moment is too big, or no opponent is too good. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the course of this year, it’s that Carlos Alcaraz has fangs.

Well, he proved it once again yesterday in a gruelling, tough five set battle against fellow Spaniard Albert Ramos Viñolas. After winning the opening set in dominating fashion, Alcaraz was up 6-1 and seemed poised to hit cruise control and coast through the rest of this match. It was at this point, that the match completely turned around. At 2-2 in the second set, Alcaraz had two break points at 15-40 on his opponent’s serve. He then proceeded to hit two unforced errors off the backhand wing. After finding himself with another break point chance in that game, he missed a backhand return from a serve out wide. The inability to bring his best in the tight moments was a continuing pattern for much of the match for the 19 year old, as he went 8/31 on break point compared to a conversion rate of 6/7 from the 34 year old.

The problems didn’t just stop there for Alcaraz. His most precious and infallible weapon, the drop shot, couldn’t win him points easily. Once he realized he didn’t have it, the teenager became tense, losing the deft touch required to execute the shot against a quality clay court player like Ramos Viñolas, and soon started pressing when he didn’t need to. Alcaraz got antsy and began pulling the trigger too quickly from the baseline. His lauded powerful and consistent groundstrokes were traded for erratic and sluggish shots that couldn’t avoid the destruction of his opponent teeing off on his forehand.

And so the match went on down to the fourth set, where Alcaraz looked dead in the water, as he faced match point at 4-5* in the fourth set. Alcaraz survived when Ramos Viñolas blinked and netted a forehand. Alcaraz could have packed it in at this moment and accepted that he just didn’t have his game, and it was too much to overcome this veteran opponent playing inspired tennis. Instead, he did what the great champions of the sport do when their backs are against the wall.

He bared his fangs.

On Sunday, May 31, 2009, Robin Soderling had done the unthinkable. He had beaten Rafael Nadal at the French Open, becoming the first ever man to defeat the then four-time champion, who had a 31-0 record on the Parisian clay. Immediately, the focus shifted to Nadal’s longtime rival, Roger Federer. This was his chance! With Nadal out of the draw, who could stop him from getting his hands on the Coupe des Mousquetaires and achieving the Career Grand Slam. The next day, Federer started his journey to the title against Tommy Haase, the electric German who had come out firing, while Federer, very similar to Alcaraz, came out making more unforced errors than usual. His forehand was often misfiring, as he struggled to find his game. Having already lost the first two sets, Federer was down 3-4, and faced break points, virtual match points. After missing a first serve, Federer hit a heavy kick serve to the Haas backhand and back-pedalled to the Ad-side corner as Haas floated the return in hopes of getting it to the Federer backhand. In that moment, Federer did what so few players have the courage to do. He backed himself into the corner, and cleanly struck an inside out forehand, creating an impossible anger for a winner. The Swiss would then go on to scrap his way through the match, and ultimately to the title. However, had Federer tentatively struck the forehand, or stumbled in any way, he perhaps would never have won the French Open.

At 40-40 in the while his opponent served the match, Carlos Alcaraz, like Roger Federer, backed himself, as he somehow found it within himself to hit a smash that screamed past Ramos Viñolas, as well as later securing the break-back to take the match to a fifth set.

Even still, it wasn’t smooth sailing for the young Spaniard in the fifth, as his level once again deserted him, as his opponent raced out to a 3-0 lead. Carlos Alcaraz had spurts of brilliant play followed by waves of disappointment throughout the match. He didn’t have his A game at all. Quite frankly, he didn’t have his B game either. What he did have was heart, stubbornness, and legs that never seem to run out of charge. At 1-3 down, Alcaraz finally found a way to convert on break point. It wasn’t by crushing a forehand winner, or by peppering a drop shot right over the net.

Instead, Alcaraz stretched out to block back a forehand return, then sprints to the forehand corner to float one back into play. At this point, Ramos Viñolas has a forehand volley right on top of the net and places it in a spot that 99% of players wouldn’t even reach. Alcaraz, like a man possessed, churns his way to the other end of the court and uses his wrist to perfectly flick a down the line passing shot winner.

This next point encapsulates the match perfectly for me. At 4-4, Alcaraz has an opportunity to break so he can serve for the match. Midway through the point he tries a dropshot, but it just simply isn’t good enough. Recognizing this, Alcaraz understands that he just needs to find a way to survive and turns his side of the court into a fortress. He digs after every ball as his opponent continues to try to finish him off by any means. Ramos Viñolas plays at a magnificent level and does enough to put away almost any other opponent. However, Alcaraz simply refuses to go away and keeps raising the question. Inevitably, Ramos Viñolas fades and falters, unable to handle Alcaraz’s sheer doggedness. We see this often from the best players to play the game. The ability to just scrap their way to the finish line knowing that they have absolutely nothing in their toolkit to impose themselves. The greats find a way.

After constantly letting the adversary back throughout the match, Alcaraz pushed his game up a gear. In the final game when serving for the match, Alcaraz hit a serve plus forehand winner combo and three aces, including one on match point. Alcaraz, like the Big 3 and the other greats that came before him went in for the kill the moment he smelt blood.

At the end of the match, he smiled like he knew what that win meant. That he was alive to fight another day, and that he had just achieved a milestone, he now knows how to win even when nothing seems to be going right. Even if he doesn’t win this tournament, though I think he will as you can see in my earlier predictions, he’s proved that he has what it takes. The Fangs.

The It Factor: Carlos Alcaraz grinds out a 5 set win against fellow Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Source: The French Open

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