The singles sections of this year’s US Open tournament were certainly not what many observers expected. With many of the higher ranked players losing early or not attending at all, some of the younger players were given an opportunity to shine, one of them being 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz Garfia.
Alcaraz soared through the early stages of the tournament, his victims including rising star Cam Norrie and the world’s number three and my personal favourite player, Stefanos Tsitsipas. The only thing that stopped him was mounting pain from a foot injury during his quarter final duel with number 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime. This triumphant run garnered Alcaraz much attention. He soared from number 55 to 38 in the ATP rankings by the time he got to the ill-fated quarterfinal match.
While some observers believe Alcaraz simply had a lucky run at the Open, many believe he certainly has the skills to become the next world number one, the spot currently held by Novak Djokovic for the past 339 weeks. According to professional player-turned commentator John McEnroe, Alcaraz has been a powerful player for years. At just 12 years old, he was noticed and picked up by an agent. He soon turned pro and was sponsored by Babolat at 15 and won his first singles title a year later at the 2020 Rio Open. In 2018, he was taken under the coaching wing of Juan Carlos Ferrero, a French Open champion and former holder of the number one ranking.
Clearly the first few years of his career have set him up for success. I like to think I am a pretty good player myself, but then I see that a kid my age has done this well, and I immediately question what I have been doing with my life. Now, those are all statistics. Anybody can look at those. And plenty of tennis players have had amazing coaches, sponsors and won a couple titles and not made it to the number one spot. So what sets Alcaraz apart from them?
The answer to this question can be found by analyzing his game play. But to understand why his playstyle looks so promising, we must first take a look at the current world number one, Djokovic, AKA the Djoker. When watching some of his matches, nothing about how the Djoker plays is overly flashy. Sure, he hits good shots, but it is not like he hits crazy winners all of the time or beats all his opponents without dropping a set, so why is he so good?
Let me tell you, the man is a machine. I swear he can play a five-set match without seeming to break a sweat. His express purpose is not to end the point ASAP with an insane winner, but to keep points going with solid shots and let his opponent make a mistake. He still hits some crazy balls, but he patiently waits for the right time, so he doesn’t drain the tank or leave himself vulnerable to a lucky return. He plays aggressive but careful. Alcaraz follows this playbook to a tee. Watching his matches, it is obvious that he is careful with his shot selection, mixing in strong backhands with floater forehands to keep his opponent moving while wearing him out. Now, because I am extra nerdy, there is one tiny thing I noticed about his forehand that places him with the best: he keeps his arm straight. To the casual tennis players and watchers, otherwise known as Roger Federer and Serena Williams fans, this may seem minor or unimportant. Au contraire, mon friend. According to Cole Sports Research, at the time of May 31, 2021, half of the ATP’s top 10 ranked players, including two of the “big three” – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – hit their forehands with a straight arm, i.e. their elbow does not bend. Doing such gives the ball more speed, leaving the opponent with less time to react. Alcaraz is part of the minority of players who hit their forehands this way, showing he has a great sense of timing and understanding of how to manipulate the ball. He has all the fundamentals of an amazing player, especially for his young age. Okay, so he has won a few titles, beaten a few high-seeded players and hits well. If you think he has everything, why is he not number one yet? Just hold your horses, I am getting there. Have I mentioned that he is still eighteen and only turned pro a few years ago?
The coveted top position doesn’t just have a skill requirement, but it also has an experience requirement. The truth is that Alcaraz just is not a super experienced player yet. He only has a couple years’ worth of playing in the Grand Slams, which are the four biggest yearly tournaments (The Australian, US and French Opens, along with Wimbledon), and he hasn’t placed very high in any of them.
The Djoker is not only number one because he can outlast everybody, but he also plays against the other best players in the world many times a year. He knows how his opponents play. Alcaraz just does not have that breadth and experience of knowledge. That is something he will gain as he keeps playing and progressing further in professional tournaments, especially the Grand Slams. Now to answer the question: will Alcaraz live up to the legendary status of his fellow Spaniard and former world number one Nadal? With enough practice, he is incredibly likely to live up to this grand expectation.