While he lasts in this U.S. Open, impress on your memory a beautifully unfinished 20-year-old, so craving of a racket in his palm and thoroughly intrigued with the possibilities of the game that he almost seems to kiss the tennis ball. Appreciate the fact that the wearying chores of Grand Slam defenses and serving commercial brands have not yet come at the cost of improvisation. Enjoy the rampant overflow of a young champion who, at times when he should commandeer a match, instead turns dreamy and plays games with such scalloping, tactile touch that he doesn’t mind dropping a set, because it’s a constant inner dialogue for him: Is it better to end the point quickly or go to the circus?
“Obviously, I want to win every match that I play, but at the same time, I want to have fun, try different things, make the people enjoy watching tennis and watching my matches,” Alcaraz said Saturday after taking four sets to defeat Daniel Evans to reach the fourth round. “Sometimes I talk to myself about what is most important: if I win or doing great things.”
Drop shots float over the net gentle as drifting leaves. Sometimes he rolls the ball, and sometimes he cuts it — and sometimes he opens his shoulders for a forehand that has the combustion of a cherry bomb. On a corner-to-corner sprint against Evans, he recovered a seemingly unreachable ball to clout a passing-shot forehand that made Evans drop his racket in astonishment and go up 4-2 in the final set. What’s most transfixing, though, is his ability to skip from one mode to another, explosion to flutterer in an instant. The varieties are so inviting that sometimes he “struggles” to choose, he acknowledges.
“If anything, he probably plays too many shots,” Evans said later. “He let me out of jail a few times playing the wrong shot.”
But that’s actually one of the sincere pleasures in watching Alcaraz at this juncture — the experimentation in his steep learning curve is thrilling. When he began working with his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, at 15, he was “like a spaghetti,” Ferrero has said. Last year he was patently an adolescent as he won his first Grand Slam title at 19, still filling out and seeming to grow whiskers overnight. Ferrero estimated Alcaraz had found only 60 percent of his potential, and some immaturity still showed when he cramped up under the pressure of meeting Novak Djokovic in the French Open semifinals this spring. But by Wimbledon he declared: “I am totally different player than French Open. I grew up a lot since that moment.” It had not even been two months.
Now he’s got ledges of muscle all over his body, delts and quads like boulders, and he is by acclamation the new regnant player in the world. But with that comes a certain potential … heaviness. Djokovic’s comment coming into this tournament that his new rival combines the characteristics of himself, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all in one was meant as a compliment. But he might as well have hung sinker weights all over the kid. One thing Alcaraz has realized about his young self is that his temperament doesn’t always respond well to the burden of huge expectations.
During last year’s ascendant season, he suffered a brief slump when he became too preoccupied with earning ranking points. As for those immobilizing cramps that bound him up in the French semifinal, they taught him definitively that “I can’t play with that tension,” he admitted. His emotional dial has to be set on playful for him to perform well.
“I’m winning all the time because I am smiling,” he has said. “And I always said that smiling for me is the key of everything, you know.”
In that respect, Alcaraz is actually nothing like the so-called Big Three. Federer was a perfectionist cloaked in grace, Nadal is all glaring intensity, and Djokovic is a relentless executor. Alcaraz’s main quality is an all-but indescribable creativity. “I always say that I’m full Carlos Alcaraz,” he said this summer. “I just try to follow my own path, try to create Carlos Alcaraz.” He doesn’t have a style as much as a sensibility. Ferrero remarked after last year’s U.S. Open victory, when asked to classify his pupil, “It’s very tough to say all these things in words.”
It’s a sensibility that requires free flow. Ferrero has said he has struggled to curb Alcaraz from over-employing the drop shot, just because he’s so uncalculated with it. In one match when he was 16, Ferrero finally forbade him to use it at all. As Ferraro relayed the story to the Spanish radio show El Larguero, he told Alcaraz: “Stop. Not one more today.” Two points later, here came another little hovering hummingbird of a ball over the net. Alcaraz looked at his coach, laughing and apologizing all at once.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it,” he said.
Probably the most acute observation about Alcaraz came from Ferrero in an exchange with Sports Illustrated last month. Alcaraz “has the ability to, you know, destroy the point,” Ferrero observed. But “he also likes to make points.”
At a certain point, Alcaraz will have to stop toying around quite so much. When his first-round opponent, Dominik Koepfer, was forced to retire, Alcaraz was actually disappointed. “I want to play battles,” he said. But the demands of Grand Slam pursuits will necessarily require that his next development cycle includes efficiency, shortening matches, avoiding the battles and conserving his body and mental energy. He will have to learn ruthlessness. The looming question is how much of his circus joy he will have to surrender to do so. The choices probably will become far more complicated.
“Probably,” he acknowledges, smiling. “But I try not to think about that.”