All set for another wild ride?

February 19, 2023

Could starting the year at No. 2 be a blessing in disguise? Carlos Alcaraz was in vintage, free-swinging form last Wednesday night at the Argentina Open

All set for another wild ride?

Carlos Alcaraz’s 2023 debut in Buenos Aires last Wednesday night was met with an appropriate level of eagerness and fanfare. The bleachers were full, “Eye of the Tiger” was cranking from the public-address system, and the fans stood as one to applaud when the 20-year-old world No. 2 entered the arena. Gabriela Sabatini was there, too. What else can a player ask, really?

Alcaraz’s hair was a little longer in front, and he was wearing a new pink shirt for the new season. But his long, bouncy, enthusiastic stride was instantly recognizable. And so was his game. Alcaraz sent his forehand whistling past his opponent, Laslo Djere, almost before Djere had finished his own swing. Just when the Serb seemed to get used to the pace, the Spaniard came under the ball and carved a perfectly measured drop shot from well behind the baseline. He won the first set 6-2. When Djere took a break between sets, Alcaraz kept the crowd entertained with a racquet-twirling exhibition. So much for rust, right?

“I had four months with no competition, with no matches, just training and recovering from my injury,” Alcaraz says. He means injuries, plural. He finished 2022 with an abdominal tear, and started 2023 with a hamstring pull.

“I’m so excited to play again, to be in the competition again. I’m really looking forward to doing it.”

By today’s standards, four months isn’t an especially long break. Alcaraz’s countryman, Rafael Nadal, has routinely been sidelined for longer, and Novak Djokovic’s no-vaccination policy kept him idle for half of 2022. But Alcaraz’s time off feels significant in part because of what happened while he was away. At the ATP Finals and the Australian Open, Djokovic took advantage of his absence to claim major titles. By the start of February, he had also reclaimed his No. 1 ranking, just 20 weeks after Alcaraz earned it for the first time.

“Now it’s a goal for me to recover No. 1 and try to do my best in these tournaments to be back on that number,” Alcaraz says. “I’m looking for that.”

At first glance, it might seem like Alcaraz comes into 2023 slightly diminished. You might even wonder if there’s a new curse surrounding the US Open. The champions in 2020 and 2021, Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev, both looked like future No. 1s when they left New York victorious, but both quickly ceded the high ground back to Djokovic and Nadal. Could Alcaraz, the 2022 Open winner, be destined for the same fate? Djokovic in particular is back in peak form again.

“His physical condition is amazing, his mental condition is amazing,” Alcaraz raved about the 35-year-old Djokovic earlier this week. “He’s like a god.”

But could starting the year at No. 2 be a blessing in disguise for Alcaraz? He can play the role of the pursuer again, which seemed to suit him well as he flew up the rankings last year. From 500s to 1000s to a Grand Slam title, he always had a new level to reach, and he succeeded in reaching all of them. Yes, he has a ton of points to defend between now and Roland Garros, including Masters titles in Miami and Madrid. But the target on his back is slightly smaller at No. 2 than it would be if he were No. 1.

If his opening match of 2023 is any indication, the ride will be just as wild for Alcaraz and his fans as it was in 2022. For such a consistent winner, Alcaraz is a surprisingly streaky player. He builds leads, gives them away when he gets nervous, and then seizes them back. He swings for the fences and goes for his delicate drops, but even for him, those low-margin shots aren’t as easy when he’s tight.

You might think that would change as he matures and learns to rein in his swings, and it might. But against Djere, Alcaraz was in vintage, high-risk form throughout.

He blitzed through the first set, but when it came to sealing the deal with a break in the second, he couldn’t find the court. He lost one break point with a wild forehand that he tried to crush while backing up, and another with an over-ambitious return. All told, he squandered seven break points on his way to losing the second set.

But then, on cue, Alcaraz turned it around again in the third set, which he won 6-2, without facing a break point. This time he sealed the second break with a spectacular set of defensive gets that had him sprinting maniacally across the baseline and back.

It was a rally only Alcaraz could have won. If that point, and this match, are any indication, Carlitos’ way in 2023 may not be straightforward, but it will be as fun to follow as ever. Good luck to his opponents, of all ages, as they try to keep up. –

All set for another wild ride?