After his straight-sets win in the Barcelona Open final on Sunday, Carlos Alcaraz, 18, eagerly followed an old and delightful local tradition. He, along with the ball boys and girls, jumped into the storied venue’s – Real Club de Tenis – swimming pool. It was another spectacular splash for the Spainard, ranked 133 a year back but now burdened with the weighty tag of ‘tennis’ future’.
The next day, he became the youngest player to enter the Top 10 since Rafael Nadal in 2005. Men’s tennis’ perpetual wait for real teenaged prodigies seemed to be over. In the era dominated by the Big Three, many pretenders promised a change of guard but failed. Now, Alcaraz, if the word on the circuit is to be believed, has it in him to shake the foundations of the old firm.
There is a general consensus about Alcaraz’s class but an outrageous global divide about his style of play. Earlier this month, when he was crowned the youngest-ever Miami Masters 1000 champion, everyone from the pundits to the meme-makers felt obliged to answer the obvious ‘He is the Next Who?’ question.
His swiftness around the court, the eagerness to dominate points, the muscular frame and Spain’s leap of faith gave him an obvious early nickname – Right-handed Nadal.
However, his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former French Open champ who couldn’t survive the Big Three march in the mid-noughties, has said that Alcaraz’s style is more like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. He wasn’t making it easy for the boy whose every stride on court was suddenly under surveillance.
The coach’s comments were a cue for the internet to dig out old match videos, slice them and then glue them side by side.
There’s this one clip where Alcaraz and Djokovic, in two different frames dominating hard-court rallies, are seen moving on the baseline, swinging their racquets with choreographed synchronicity.
Right down to the ‘pursed lips and cocky nods’ celebration after a sharp-angle cross-court forehand winner, the young Spaniard looked like the Serbian legend’s identical tennis twin.
Rafa’s fast feet, Djokovic’s forehand and, as some observed, Andre Agassi’s racquet-speed – Alcaraz was made to look like some Frankenstein programmed to hit monstrous forehands.
Blast from the past
A bit of independent YouTubing on forehands throws up Sergi Bruguera, the master clay-courter from the 1990s. His whip-like forehand would be the result of the racquet taking the trajectory of a plane taking off while hitting the ball. Alcaraz’s shot-making shape and racquet path is similar.
More surfing and one bumps into another lookalike. The young champion’s blank brooding face is a throwback to Pete Sampras from the early days. A highly-imaginative commentator had said Sampras has the face of a shy impressionable teen who is likely to fall for an older woman. But we digress.
Maybe, numbed by the greatness thrust on him, Alcaraz has insisted that he wants to be just Carlos Alcaraz. The trivia about a picture of him with Federer by the bedside adds another layer of intrigue.
But that hasn’t hurt the Spaniard. Nadal, once during a press conference, looked distracted. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the media room television airing one Alcaraz game.
When a reporter told him that his countryman was trailing, Nadal smiled and said there are still many games to play. It wasn’t too long before Alcaraz justified Nadal’s faith and finished the match.
The latest tennis star to emerge from Spain is in a way an outlier but also represents the legacy of this great tennis nation.
What separates him from Nadal is his press on the court. Since his days on the junior circuit, Alcaraz finishes most rallies from inside the baseline. One can never dismiss him as another Spanish back-court slugger. He is an eager beaver always on his toes to catch the ball early and throw the kitchen sink at it.
Alcaraz’s overall game is also a tribute to a system that values wisdom passed down through generations and one that encourages organically-evolved original thinking.
One important weapon that Alcaraz possesses is the drop shot that glides the length of his side of the court and has just enough strength to cross the net and sink. He also has a lob that sails over his 6 feet-plus opponents and kisses the baseline.
These two unconventional hard-to-pull-off strokes at crunch moments break the rhythm of his opponents and help him win those points at 40-30.
Alcaraz is a perfect brand ambassador of the many clay-court academies littered across Spain. For years, these have been assembly lines where kids check in after school in the afternoon and leave late at night.
In a delightful Dan Kiernan podcast Control the Controllables, two old-hand Spanish coaches Bruno Argudo and Juan Beaus paint a vivid picture of these tennis schools while talking about a culture that is very different from the academies around the world where kids pay for ‘hourly sessions’.
Between completing their homework, kids get enough time for endless sets. They travel for tournaments in groups. When not playing, they sit next to their coaches, who between sips of coffee talk about strategies for different match situations.
The clay courts too have a role. On the podcast, these slow surfaces are called ‘assistant coaches.’ They teach patience, hone court craft and never allow one to be complacent. There are no easy points since the ball doesn’t fly off the court. It is a tough grind. In a month’s time, the latest Spanish sensation will be in Paris and his pedigree makes him one among the favourites.
Alcaraz may be different but it’s his grooming that makes him true to the Vamos-yelling tribe that has pitched its tents on many clay courts around the world.
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