There is no tennis metric to measure ‘prospective winners’ – shots that, on the basis of their depth, placement, or power, should win a player a point but don’t. If there was, each of Carlos Alcaraz’s opponents during his US Open triumph would likely top the charts.
On Sunday, the 19-year-old sensation won his first Grand Slam title in Flushing Meadows by beating Casper Ruud 6-4, 2-6, 7-6, 6-3, becoming the youngest World No.1 in men’s tennis history.
There are remarkable and evident strengths in Alcaraz’s playing style that make him an attacking threat. The shot placement on his forehand is only succeeded by the shot’s destructive power, which is able to open up court positions for him to unleash winners. But it is his defence that takes the plaudits.
In just two full seasons on tour, Alcaraz’s continuously expanding highlight reel is already long and drawn out, on various surfaces, positions, and circumstances. It would explain the why he is such a big crowd-favourite wherever he plays.
The Spaniard can get fans swaying to the tune of his incredible athleticism, which he uses to get to shots that others would not even bother with, and get himself back into position to compete for the rest of the point. Not an inch of the court is out of his reach, and neither are near-perfect groundstrokes.
Even if Alcaraz’s efforts go to waste, in making his opponents hit multiple ‘prospective winners’ to win a single point, he keeps them on their toes, constantly making split-second decisions and evaluating the shot placement of their own. That’s when the errors begin leaking.
In the quarterfinal, Sinner played a well-measured, high-quality game, but still made 63 unforced errors as opposed to 61 winners. Marin Cilic made 66 compared to 45 winners in the fourth round, and Frances Tiafoe 52 compared to 51 winners in the semifinal. This trend is not just a coincidence.
So many of the best aggressive baseliners of this generation live and die by their defence – counterpunching and continuously getting the ball back into play before yielding an error or finding the right opportunity to pull the trigger. But despite having elite defensive skills, Alcaraz’s commitment to attack-minded tennis does not waver. A lot of this tendency to turn defence into attack may hinge on his athleticism, but there are other major factors at play.
Aggressive court positioning
The first is his aggressive court positioning. At many points in a game, Alcaraz is seen taking up positions coming close to, or even inside, the baseline. He takes the ball as early as he can and pushes his opponent as far behind as he can, so that he has enough time to take up an aggressive position to put the point away. If he fails to do so, he gives himself enough time to reset and chase down the ball on his side of the court. It is how he is able to get to so many of the lobs that go over his head and behind him when he is at the net.
The second is his tendency to get around his backhand. More often than not, the Spaniard will take balls that come in short into his backhand by going around the wing and hitting an inside-out forehand to his right-handed opponent’s backhand. They then have to go for a big one down the line, which is a high-risk shot, one that Alcaraz backs his footspeed to track down, or float one back crosscourt, which Alcaraz likes to flatten with an inside-in forehand.
It’s high-risk, low-percentage tennis at its best. It sees so much success thanks to Alcaraz’s commitment to the strategy, and his athleticism. His coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former World No. 1 and Grand Slam champion himself, would have put in plenty of time on the practice court developing it. Ferrero began coaching the Spaniard when he was just 15, and after the US Open win, he highlighted areas his pupil can improve in, like his serve and backhand, so that he has the skills to win cheap points too, especially under pressure.
For a majority of the second and third sets in the final, Ruud was the better player. He isolated Alcaraz through the ferocity of his own forehand, getting enough depth on it to push the Spaniard far behind the baseline, robbing him of the time to dictate the rhythm of the rallies.
In the scurrying situations created by Alcaraz through his now infamous drop shot, Ruud had the improvisational skills to keep Alcaraz second-guessing himself and making errors. The commentator swooned over that ability, claiming the Norwegian was “out-Alcarazing Alcaraz.” The 19-year-old eventually raised his level enough to win the high-pressure points, but had he lost any of the two set points he saved in the third, the outcome of the match could have turned on its head.
His attribute of turning defence into offence though, is his single greatest and unique strength. Among the modern greats, Novak Djokovic comes closest to the defence-to-offence game. But the former World No.1 plays the waiting game till he sees a window of opportunity. Alcaraz though is pre-programmed to attack from the first instance.