Early in the second set of Carlos Alcaraz’s third-round victory at the Miami Open, Dusan Lajovic, a Serbian veteran, was suffocating under the world No 1’s relentless pressure. Lajovic threw down everything he had, directing a forehand approach shot down the line and then connecting with a backhand overhead to the other line. In three rapid steps, Alcaraz flitted from the left side of the court to the right and cracked an angled forehand passing shot past Lajovic at the net. Then he smiled.
Alcaraz is the most dynamic, creative player in men’s tennis right now, a walking highlight reel, and seemingly every single match he plays brings similar exhibitions of skill and athleticism. His speed makes it so difficult to put the ball past him, and he pairs his defence with unwavering aggression off both wings and hand skills that allow him to unload from any position on the court.
Those strengths alone would mark Alcaraz as a top player but his game is also startlingly complete. He adores finishing points with delicate forehand drop shots, making it impossible for opponents to read him. He is constantly looking for an opportunity to move forward to the net. Alcaraz’s countless strengths are threaded together by his innate intelligence and an understanding of how best to use his strengths.
At such a young age – still just 19 years old – Alcaraz is enjoying a level of success that only Rafael Nadal can relate to on the men’s tour. At the start of this season, though, his rapid upward trajectory was briefly halted by the first crisis of his career.
A few weeks after winning the US Open last year and becoming the first teenage world No 1 in the history of men’s tennis, Alcaraz was forced to withdraw from the ATP Finals with an abdominal injury. Just as he returned to full intensity in training, he then suffered a hamstring injury that forced him out of the Australian Open.
While the rest of his opponents flew to Melbourne, Alcaraz was sequestered in his gym for rehab. He sat down with his team and concluded that he had fallen out of some of the daily habits that had contributed to his success, from early nights to maintaining a healthy diet. “I didn’t do as [well] as I wanted to do that,” he said. “But after the injury in January, I started to do better [with] the things off the court.”
Since returning to competition, things have seamlessly clicked back into place. Alcaraz played his comeback tournament in Buenos Aires, which he won, and his win-loss record is 16-1 this year, with two titles. His sole defeat led to further concerns about his durability after he suffered another hamstring injury while leading Cameron Norrie in the Rio Open final, but he immediately followed it up by winning Indian Wells and regaining the No 1 ranking.
That run in Indian Wells, which he pulled off without dropping a set, was incredible. Daniil Medvedev has been outplayed many times, but he is one of the most tactically astute players and he arrived in their final on a 19-match winning sequence. He has never looked so clueless on the court, so unsure about how on earth to put any sort of pressure on his opponent. Alcaraz dismantled him 6-3, 6-2.
It was Alcaraz’s semi-final match against Jannik Sinner, though, that gave a glimpse into what his future could hold. As thrilling and impressive as Alcaraz’s US Open performances were, he was also wasteful and inefficient. The Spaniard was competing at a higher level than each of his opponents, but he continually failed to take his opportunities, sometimes playing too much to the audience by attempting unnecessarily elaborate shots on important points and regularly ending up in fifth sets.
During his Indian Wells semi-final, though, Alcaraz struggled with various aspects of his game and was outplayed during the first set. But he served well, he produced during every decisive moment and he closed out the match in straight sets. Alcaraz’s game is already so effective and complete, but as he matures he will likely become more clinical and efficient, pairing his relentless creativity with more sensible decisions when necessary. His serve should also improve.
As he has risen to the top of the sport, Alcaraz’s success has already transformed his life. He naturally demands even more attention with the retirement of Roger Federer and the absences of Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and his practice sessions are intense. He has already signed new endorsements, from BMW to Calvin Klein, and after the latter was revealed, he surely saw the comments from some critics suggesting that he would be distracted from his goals. He continues to thrive.
The way Alcaraz has carried himself in his young career is almost as impressive as his on-court showings. He remains kind, pleasant and humble. His peers have no choice but to like him, even as he continues to suffocate them.