Daniil Medvedev saw Carlos Alcaraz set up for the drop shot. He started his sprint from way behind the baseline, barely in front of the ‘Indian Wells’ lettering on the court, but the anticipation and speed that belies his tall, lanky frame carried him to the ball well before the second bounce. Then Medvedev carved under the ball with his racket, producing a sick counter-drop shot that left even the lightning-quick Alcaraz flailing at air.

Medvedev was down 3-6, 1-5 at the time.

The reality is that Alcaraz’s blend of fast, heavy groundstrokes and delicate drop shots is a safe no one has been able to fully crack yet. If you stand in, crowding the baseline in anticipation of the dropper, Alcaraz blasts the ball past you easily. And if you stand back to give yourself more time to run down his massive forehand (the backhand is no slouch offensively, either), Alcaraz has a yawning canyon of space to hit his drop shot into. You might get to a couple, like Medvedev did, but most of the time that dropper is going to be an untouchable winner. The choice of whether to get gobbled up by the power or drop shots is yours, but you’re screwed either way.

Even playing points on your own terms against Alcaraz is difficult — given his generational foot speed, it’s usually only a matter of time until he wins a defensive point that awes people even outside the tennis bubble while sucking the soul out of his opponent.

Alcaraz is building an empire of lopsided matchups. It’s not so much the amount of times he’s beating specific opponents but the way he beats them. Medvedev was given no chance in the Indian Wells final, only winning 12 points on Alcaraz’s serve (on a slow court, to boot) despite his good return game. Alcaraz won six games in a row against Stefanos Tsitsipas in Miami in 2022. Against Djokovic in Madrid last year — a matchup in which many thought Alcaraz’s serve would get tortured — he only got broken once and won a third-set tiebreak. He’s shown some vulnerability on quick indoor courts, where Felix Auger-Aliassime beat him comfortably last year, but Alcaraz won’t have to deal with those conditions at most of the big tournaments. Though he’s still finding his footing on grass, so is the vast majority of the ATP, and Alcaraz’s prior improvement arcs suggest he’ll soon outpace the field there too.

It all begs the question: What is the blueprint for beating this guy? He’s a speed demon who can hit the crap out of the ball. His return of serve is fantastic. The serve itself isn’t great, but Alcaraz’s spot serving seems to be improving, and his strengths act as such a tough armor that most opponents can’t even get at his weakness. I thought Medvedev might pose issues for Alcaraz in the Indian Wells final, between his incredible defense and the molasses-slow court. But not only did the 19-year-old Spaniard (take a moment to appreciate that he is still 19 and, if you take the word of his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, nowhere near his peak yet) hit through Medvedev with ease, he also stifled Medvedev’s offense with his own defense. Just five winners made their way past him over the course of the match. It was abundantly clear that Alcaraz had far more ways to win points, which was probably what Popcorn Tennis contributor Mateja Vidakovic was thinking when he told me over the phone before the Indian Wells final, “Medvedev might be fucked.”


I think that Djokovic holds basically the only remaining key in an Alcaraz matchup: staying glued to the baseline to counter the drop shot while simultaneously taking the ball early, depriving Alcaraz of time to load up on the forehand. But hitting on the rise, especially against someone who strikes the ball as hard as Alcaraz, is one of the hardest tasks tennis has to offer. Djokovic can do it consistently well; it’s not really a viable possibility for 99% of the tour. Jannik Sinner and Holger Rune can maybe match Alcaraz’s versatility, but Rune is leagues behind physically and Sinner trails Alcaraz ever so slightly in some key areas (speed, touch, return of serve).

The concept of an unsolvable matchup is nothing new. Take Djokovic at the Australian Open. Seven opponents approached him, seven went down. None of them had much of a shot (Grigor Dimitrov probably had a puncher’s chance against a physically vulnerable Djokovic, but couldn’t win a set). What was interesting to me about that run was not that many of Djokovic’s opponents failed to play their best, but how Djokovic’s game intrinsically makes it more difficult for opponents to execute a gameplan.

From Tommy Paul’s one-sided Australian Open semifinal against Djokovic.

This dynamic was clearest to me in his semifinal against Tommy Paul, and it’s easy to see tweets like this and buy into the idea that Paul failed to commit to an aggressive gameplan. Like Craig says, why the hell would anyone trade groundstrokes with Djokovic from the baseline? Well, it’s because there’s not much choice. Djokovic’s relentless depth pins you there. And as much as rushing the net to disrupt baseline hell is a sexy idea, it’s not advisable to hit an approach shot after you’ve just been pushed five feet behind the baseline by a deep backhand. (Not to mention that Djokovic hits superb passing shots.) You have to be on top of the point to rush the net successfully, and it’s just too difficult to get the right court position against Djokovic.

Alcaraz is building a similar aura, in that he’s crafting a game that forces his opponents into an inescapable corner. Crowd the baseline if you can, but those groundstrokes are going to push you back, opening up space for the inevitable drop shot. Medvedev, a former world #1 and hard court master who was on a 19-match winning streak (though it should be said that he was playing on an unfavorably slow hard court), couldn’t strike the right balance. He didn’t even come close. I think Djokovic can still take down Alcaraz on grass or hard court at his best, but I would not bet on anyone else.

During our call, Mateja referenced the way tennis players say they need to play their best against opponents who are better than they are, even when it’s long been demonstrated that their best level is not enough.

“You don’t need to play your best,” he told me. “You need to play differently.” I don’t expect people to follow his guidance in tough matchups — it’s too hard for a tennis player to turn their back on the style of play that has gotten them to where they are — but it’s sound advice for Alcaraz’s future opponents. Time to abandon the comfort zone and start looking for a key that may take years to find.


Published by Owen

Owen Lewis 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.

2 thoughts on “Unsolvable?

  1. Good article, Owen. One that makes me think a lot.

    It’s quite amazing how you mention that only a 35year old player holds the last possible key to take Alcaraz down. I don’t know if this is a statement of how big of a champion Djokovic is, or how poor players on the tour are. Do you think once Alcaraz downs Djokovic in a slam match, the baton will finally get passed to new gen from the Big 3?


    1. Thanks so much, Sanjeet. I think it’s more of a testament to Djokovic’s skill — his ability to take the ball early from both wings is completely unrivaled, and has persisted even as he’s aged.

      Alcaraz certainly seems to be the guy who will take the baton from Djokovic. I might already favor him against Novak in a match at Roland-Garros. Djokovic is so relentless that I could see him losing to Alcaraz and trying to work out solutions even after that, but eventually, the physical deficit will be too much.

      Liked by 1 person

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