Carlos Alcaraz Is Bringing a Thrilling Sense of Uncertainty to Tennis

Of all the ways to describe the joy of watching Carlos Alcaraz play tennis, the best might be the simplest: It’s fun to be at the beginning of something. For some time now, as men’s tennis has glided through its long twilight of middle-aged dad-kings, fans of the sport have been thinking about endings. We’ve been anticipating retirements. We’ve been debating career legacies. We’ve been watching the unprecedentedly long reigns of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and Novak Djokovic draw slowly—very slowly—to a close. It’s a sort of drama that can be found only in the final chapters of a story. Who will finish with the most majors? Who will win the 60th match between Nadal and Djokovic? Who will go out on top? Who will endure the longest?

Last-chapter drama can be awfully compelling, but it’s also, by definition, the product of a story we already know. Nothing is ever going to happen again, at least on the court, to change our basic ideas about Nadal and Djokovic. (Federer retired in 2022, so unless he comes back with a two-handed backhand, the point stands for him as well.) We know everything about these players that we’re ever going to know. When we watch them now, it’s partly to relive old glories and partly to stay current with the micro-shifts in their historical standings. It’s like watching border skirmishes between ancient, relatively static empires.

Watching someone set out to forge a new empire is a whole other kind of excitement, at least if they have the talent to do it (sorry to Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Daniil Medvedev, and all the world’s former chosen ones). And this is why, when I’m watching Carlos Alcaraz play tennis, I sometimes murmur to myself, “He’s only 20 years old! He’s 20!!” in a tone that makes me sound like I’m about 7 myself. Last year, at 19, Alcaraz became the youngest top-ranked player in the history of the Association of Tennis Professionals. Over the past 12 months, he’s won two majors and spent 31 weeks ranked no. 1. This week, he launched his first title defense at a major by beating Dominik Koepfer 6-2, 3-2 (ret.) at the U.S. Open. (Koepfer rolled his ankle; don’t look up the video.) Alcaraz followed that up with a routine 6-3, 6-1, 7-6(4) win over South Africa’s Lloyd Harris. His focus maybe wavered a bit in the third set of that match; your focus would waver too if you were 20 and wearing this shirt.

Alcaraz is pushing the limits of a sport whose limits haven’t exactly been left undisturbed over the past 15 or 20 years. And he’s in the first chapter of his career. He tells us something new about himself every time he takes the court.

Here’s how young Alcaraz is: Because his game looks so fearless—and you don’t beat Djokovic in a five-set Wimbledon final in your 18th-ever match on grass, as Alcaraz did this summer, if terror figures heavily in your style of play—interviewers like to ask him what he’s afraid of. Like, “Carlitos, you just dominated your opponent so thoroughly that at one point his soul literally left his body. What does frighten you?”

And here’s how he tends to answer:

“I’d say the dark,” he told the ATP website last September, after winning the U.S. Open as a teenager. “I’m not a fan of horror films either. I’m scared of lots of things.”

“I am afraid of the dark,” he told Marca last April. “Of many animals … of many things, although it seems like I’m not.”

I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of scary movies. I’m afraid of ferocious animals. This is a list of fears belonging to a child, or to someone who was a child so recently that he hasn’t had time to develop grown-up fears yet. How long do you think it’s been since Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic could have plausibly claimed to be afraid of turning off the light? Tennis players do tend to be superstitious—during changeovers, for instance, Alcaraz always takes a bite of his energy bar before a bite of his banana, and he always bounces the ball exactly five times before serving—but it’s hard to imagine that Djokovic, when the light switches off inside his cryogenic helium pod or whatever, feels himself surrounded by monsters creeping in from the void. Federer was more than twice Alcaraz’s current age when he retired last year at 41. Nadal and Djokovic are both nearing 40. These guys are afraid of European tax law, male pattern baldness, a crisis involving their children, and the inevitable approach of death.

And look; the point is that you feel this gap when they’re on the court. It shows up in the way they play. Tennis, as practiced by Nadal and Djokovic in their later years, and by Federer before he retired, has been about refinement and efficiency. These players were and are still capable of astonishing things—very few athletes in any sport have been more astonishing for longer—but at a certain point, appreciating their evolution started to mean appreciating the nuances of mature craftsmanship. “Oh, wow,” we’d say, “he’s coming into the net a little earlier to shorten the points.” Or, “he’s really being intentional with his serve placement.” You noticed the hardcore detail work, and it was incredibly impressive, but there were fewer moments that made your heart float out of your chest and into outer space.

Alcaraz, though? He’ll send you to the far side of Andromeda. Week in and week out, he’s doing what young talents are supposed to do; he’s finding entirely new ways to bend the game to his imagination. He’s so fast that when he sprints to get to a ball, it looks like an editing gimmick—like someone cut out the middle of the video. He’s stronger and more lithe than Federer, quicker than Nadal, more creative and audacious than Djokovic. I would be lying if I said I spend a huge amount of time thinking about footwork while watching sports—no offense to feet—but Alcaraz’s movement is so good that I sometimes rewind a live match just to try to understand it.

He’s making tennis look different, demonstrating wild new possibilities within a sport that had started to feel like its upgrade cycle was being planned by Apple. (Novak Djokovic 10.7.3 includes minor bug fixes.) Djokovic himself said, in a touchingly gracious interview after his loss to Alcaraz at Wimbledon, that the Spaniard has developed an unprecedented style drawn from the best features of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal. “I haven’t played a player like him ever, to be honest,” he said.

As I’ve been gearing up for Alcaraz’s title defense at the U.S. Open this year, I keep coming back to an essential tension in the life of every sports fan. Call it the tension between structure and uncertainty. As fans, we need uncertainty because competition is boring when we know the outcome in advance. We also need structure because competition is boring without some degree of narrative coherence. It’s the old debate about dynasties: when the same people win again and again, it’s easy to feel invested in their stories, but the more they win, the more they reduce the sport’s capacity for surprise.

For years now, watching men’s tennis has meant loving players who’ve tilted the game massively in the direction of structure. We’ve known within a tiny margin of error who will win almost everything. We’ve been so accustomed to this situation that it was hard to imagine an alternative. Tennis’s era of endings felt ironically eternal, as if we were rooting for microplastics with really good backhands. At least for me, what Alcaraz has done—along with everything else he’s done—is to offer a sudden, shocking reminder of what it feels like to watch a sport in which nothing is known in advance. Alcaraz could win 30 majors. He could produce a decade of astonishing highlights. He could peak early and have a disappointing career. He could take $500 million to join a Saudi pickleball league. I simply have no idea what to expect from him, and that feeling of wide-open horizon is as thrilling as his forehand.

Alcaraz’s presence on the scene has even injected an exciting new precariousness—and a corresponding sense of possibility—into Djokovic’s career in particular, with the Serbian currently ranked no. 2. It changes the glide path of his final years on tour. How hard will Djokovic have to push himself to contest a rivalry with an opponent this young and talented? Will he be able to do it? So far the results are mixed: Alcaraz won their epic Wimbledon final, but Djokovic beat him in the Cincinnati final late last month, and he’ll take over the no. 1 spot the next time the rankings are published. How he fares against Alcaraz won’t matter much to his overall legacy, but it might matter a lot to his motivation and ambition. I can’t wait to find out.

Sport needs a certain amount of predictability to stay interesting, but men’s tennis has been predictable for a long time. The joy of Alcaraz is the joy of the reset button. He’s filled the whole sport with fresh potential, and for now, not being able to see what’s coming is a delight. Sometimes being in the dark isn’t scary at all. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like the dark.

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