What Makes Carlos Alcaraz So Good

Determining the foot speed of a tennis player is not like timing an Olympic sprinter. A player’s race to a ball tends to begin with a little hop in place, a split step, but the real quickness in that moment is a matter of the eyes and brain—attempting to detect, or guess, in a split second or so, where an opponent is aiming to hit his shot. This might lead to a slight leaning in the direction of that detected or guessed spot, and then, once the ball is off the opponent’s racquet, an explosive first step. (Élite players do any number of drills to develop this step.) Then, just before reaching the ball, unless he’s reaching for it on the run, a player makes what are called adjustment steps, dancing with the smallest of strides to get just right the distance from the ball—a distance that will enable him to comfortably extend his arm and racquet and smack the ball, or slice it, with the sweet spot of the string bed. That’s a lot of motion, and there’s no stopwatch app for capturing it all.

What is clear to observers of the game is that players have got faster. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, in their prime, discernibly changed the men’s game with their lateral speed, chasing down sharply angled balls that flew beyond the doubles alleys and that would have been clean winners in an earlier era. In effect, they widened the court. But to this observer, and not only this observer, neither Djokovic nor Nadal, fast as they were, could dart and dash as tirelessly as the nineteen-year-old Spanish phenom Carlos Alcaraz. “I never played a guy who moves as well as him,” Frances Tiafoe said, after losing to Alcaraz in their U.S. Open semifinal match Friday night, a five-set thriller. On Sunday afternoon, in the U.S. Open men’s final, Alcaraz’s relentless fleetness was a factor, maybe the factor, in his 6–4, 2–6, 7–6 (1), 6–3 victory over Norway’s Casper Ruud.

When you are playing Alcaraz, dealing with his speed would seem to figure into your strategy. I asked Ruud about this at his press conference following the final. Ruud is twenty-three, personable and articulate, and he talked about how, when one thinks about a player’s chief weapons, one tends to think of serves and forehands. With Alcaraz, there are the legs. “It makes us other players feel like you need to paint the lines, sort of, to be able to hit a winner,” he said, “and sometimes even that’s not enough. He’s fast, very quick—he’s a great mover.”

But, as the final Open match got under way, it became clear that Alcaraz wasn’t racing to the corners for balls with the effortless speed that he’s known for. And, when he did manage to arrive at a ball out wide, he wasn’t hitting it with the control and accuracy that can deflate an opponent and bring a crowd to its feet. He was tired, or appeared to be. He’d played three five-set night matches in a row to reach the final. One of these, his quarterfinal match Wednesday night, against the twenty-one-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner, didn’t end until 2:50 A.M. on Thursday morning—the latest that a U.S. Open match has ever concluded. (For players and fans alike, tournament officials need to rethink scheduling.) Alcaraz didn’t have recovery days between matches. He had hours.

Even so, he took the first set against Ruud, using his legs to best effect not by moving laterally along the baseline but by sprinting forward, toward the net. If you are tired, one of the ways to shorten points and preserve what energy you have is to come in. Alcaraz has good hands for a player as young as he is—and one playing in an era where coming to net is no longer the essential skill it once was, though that may be changing. And he has the footwork and confidence to run through his volleys, never mind the textbook stopping and squaring up, which allow him to get his body into the shot and drive it. In the third game of the first set, with Ruud serving, Alcaraz knifed a volley deep that skidded low, too low for Ruud to get any kind swing on it. This brought the game to 0–40, and two points later Alcaraz secured the set’s only break.

Alcaraz kept coming forward, following ground strokes struck off short balls, at times serving and volleying. After the match, I asked him why. “Because I was really nervous,” he said—that is, nervous that he couldn’t hang with Ruud in long, baseline rallies, given the near endless matches he’d endured. He was right about that. Ruud was winning most of the longer rallies, hitting the corners with his excellent topspin forehand and surprising Alcaraz with backhands redirected down the line. In the second set, Ruud also began getting to Alcaraz’s gossamer drop shots, another ploy to end points more quickly. Alcaraz’s serve abandoned him, too, at key moments in the second set. Ruud broke him twice and evened the match.

It was the twelfth game of the third set—a long, long game punctuated by daring shot-making and responsive roars from a crowd brought to its feet by it all—which decided the match. Alcaraz was serving at 5–6. Ruud crushed a forehand winner down the line to earn a set point, but Alcaraz stayed alive with a volley winner. When Alcaraz came forward again, during the next point, Ruud managed a perfectly placed passing shot, and earned another set point. Again, on the point that followed, Alcaraz sprinted in and denied Ruud the break. Eventually, Alcaraz won the game with an overhead smash, and won the following tiebreak in a rout. Ruud’s body language was now that of a player who could not find a way. The Alcaraz who came on court for the fourth set had the freshness that confidence can instill. He pummelled ground strokes hard and deep, and his serve has seldom looked better. Serving at 5–3, he struck two aces, and then, at 40–30, delivered a serve that Ruud could not put back into play. Alcaraz collapsed backward onto the court, rolled over, and sobbed. He’d outlasted the last opponent that he had to outlast.

No teen-ager in the men’s game had won a major since Nadal won the French Open in 2005. No teen-ager in the men’s game had won the U.S. Open since Pete Sampras in 1990. Alcaraz’s win earned him two thousand ranking points, which moved him to No. 1 in the world. No teen-ager in the men’s game has been ranked No. 1 since the computer-ranking system was instituted, in 1973. Those who follow tennis had been sure that Alcaraz would be a Grand Slam champion someday. Someday arrived a little sooner than expected.

It has no doubt been pointed out by someone that Alcaraz’s remarkable ascent came in a year when the stubbornly unvaccinated Djokovic was not permitted to play in Australia or the United States—and when the two thousand points that Djokovic ordinarily would have earned for winning Wimbledon were not granted, because the A.T.P., which oversees men’s tennis, stripped that tournament of ranking points to protest its exclusion of Russian and Belarusian players. (The W.T.A., which oversees the women’s game, did the same.) One response to these observations is to note that Alcaraz beat Djokovic in Madrid, in May, after defeating Nadal. What’s more, there has emerged a cohort of young players with exciting games and winning on-court personalities. Men’s tennis will go on without the Big Three of Djokovic, Nadal, and Roger Federer. And those young players—among them, Ruud, Sinner, and Tiafoe—are going to be chasing Carlos Alcaraz. ♦

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