Carlos Alcaraz is ready to be the next tennis superstar


PARIS — There was never any danger of “Marcha Real” going back into hibernation here at the French Open. Spain’s national anthem played after each of Rafael Nadal‘s 14 singles wins, and it rang out again into the cool Paris evening air on Sunday, after Carlos Alcaraz‘s epic five-set victory over Alexander Zverev. It was Alcaraz’s third Grand Slam title, after claiming the crowns of the US Open in 2022 and then Wimbledon last year.

Having grown up on the clay courts of Spain, Alcaraz seemed the most obvious heir to Nadal’s throne. In lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires, he has joined an elite club, becoming the seventh man to win a Grand Slam on all three surfaces. But the scary thing? He’s the youngest, at 21, to achieve it.

“He is better than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic at 21,” said analyst John McEnroe. He made that claim before the final started on Court Philippe-Chatrier, and what followed over the next 4 hours, 19 minutes was an exhibition in endurance, shot variety and soul-searching. Zverev kept on Alcaraz’s heels, but in the end, Alcaraz came through 6-3, 2-6, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2. Six-time French Open champion Bjorn Borg handed Alcaraz the trophy, the baton passed on to the next generation.

“Winning a Grand Slam is always special,” Alcaraz said after the match. “Winning your first in every Grand Slam is always super special. But in Roland Garros, knowing all the Spanish players who have won this tournament and being able to put my name on that amazing list is something unbelievable. Something that I dream[ed] about … since I started playing tennis, since I was five, six years old.”

When Alcaraz was young, he used to run home after school and ask his parents to put on the TV so he could watch Nadal at Roland Garros. His parents were there to witness Alcaraz lift the trophy, a journey coming full circle, standing in the same spot where his hero had on 14 previous occasions. Nadal was watching on from afar, and offered his compliments. “Congratulations Carlos for this immense victory!!!! Big!!!! Very happy for your successes!!! Vamos!” Nadal posted in Spanish on X.

ALCARAZ USED TO study hours on hours of footage of the greats. He watched Djokovic on hard courts, Federer and Andy Murray on grass courts and Nadal on clay. He had the benefit of growing up being able to learn from that generation, inspired and motivated in equal measure.

“I always wanted to be one of the best players in the world,” he said after his semifinal win. “If I want to be one of the best players in the world, I have to be a good player on every surface, like, Roger did, Novak, Rafa, Murray. The best players in the world had success in every surface.”

One day, the next generation will study him. Those still playing are envious of his talents. “He is a very complete tennis player at his age, with very few weaknesses,” Nadal said of Alcaraz earlier this year. “At his age I had a worse serve, a worse volley, a worse backhand, I had many things worse than him at his age.”

Ever since Alcaraz broke on to the scene, big things have been expected. He had an amazing skillset, which meant he could challenge on multiple surfaces. His first entry at Roland Garros was back in 2020, but he fell in the qualifying rounds to Aleksandr Vukic. A year later, he made it to the third round, but lost in three sets against Jan-Lennard Struff.

In 2022, he was toppled by Zverev at the quarterfinal stage. But three months later, Alcaraz won his first Grand Slam in New York. At the 2023 French Open, Djokovic dispatched him in four sets, with Alcaraz suffering from debilitating cramping. But then he won Wimbledon one month after that, in just his fourth tournament on grass.

When 2024 ticked around, he’d taken the collective lessons from each experience and put it all together to build this remarkable run. Alcaraz came into this tournament with injury concerns. A troublesome right arm injury saw him miss most of the clay-court swing. As he got to Paris, he was wearing a protective sleeve on his arm; his forehand, by his own admission, wasn’t quite operating at 100%. But such is his self-belief, he built fitness and confidence through playing in the main draw.

He defeated J.J. Wolf in the first round and then needed four sets to get past qualifier Jesper de Jong in the second round. It was after this test he said he felt comfortable unleashing the full whip of his forehand. Seb Korda, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Stefanos Tsitsipas were all dispatched in straight sets, but then came the blockbuster match-up with incumbent world No.1 Jannik Sinner in the semifinals.

Both Sinner and Alcaraz suffered with cramping. Alcaraz did his best to shield this from Sinner, and he came through in five sets. He’d learned from the Djokovic match on how to cope with it.

“I’m gonna say I’m stronger mentally [than 2023]. I knew how to deal with these situations,” Alcaraz said. “I knew that the cramps are going to [go] away if I stay there. I knew that probably I have to make the points [shorter]. So I knew much better how to do it this year than last year.”

By that point in the press conference, Alcaraz had already checked his phone. He’d seen that he’d become the youngest men’s player to reach the Grand Slam final on all three surfaces. He smiled recalling it, saying, “breaking new records is great.”

IT’S ALWAYS BEEN Alcaraz’s goal to be dominant across all three surfaces, but still he needed that elusive trophy to secure his spot among the pantheon of greats. To do that, he needed to overcome Zverev.

Zverev was playing some of the best tennis of his career. He also knows this place well, having reached the semifinal of the French Open the past four years. He was desperate to win that first Grand Slam title, after falling at the 2020 US Open final stage.

This was to be a final decided by small margins — sometimes it comes down to who can find another level in the final set.

It was Alcaraz who started the better of the two, taking the first set 6-1. He was then a break up in the second, but his game fell apart, Zverev pouncing on mistakes to win five games in a row to take the second set 6-2. Alcaraz said afterwards he was trying to hide how nervous he was from Zverev. But the same pattern happened again in the third set, Alcaraz serving for the set at 5-2, only to lose 7-5. Alcaraz looked agitated and exasperated. But all the while he was figuring things out: he stood further back on Zverev’s serve, was willing to let Zverev out-hit him and wait to counter, and as the opportunities started to present themselves, Alcaraz pounced on them.

Alcaraz was getting frequent treatment from the physiotherapist on his left leg — but flipped the match back in his favor, taking the fourth set 6-1, and then by the fifth, he was in the ascendancy. His highlight reel will include numerous forehands down the line — the type where he’s threaded the eye of the needle to find the narrowest gap in Zverev’s defense — and a backhand lob at the start of the fourth set which just kissed the line.

But the best shot of all? Perhaps the deftest flick of a cross-court backhand to help bring up 5-2 in the fifth, which bamboozled just about everyone on court and somehow found its way in.

A game and a few minutes later, Alcaraz was flat on his back on the clay, filled with relief, exhaustion and exhilaration at winning the French Open. He has an incredible ability to close out matches when his back is against the wall: He’s now 11-1 in matches that have gone to the fifth set.

“I know that when I’m playing a fifth set, you have to give everything, you have to give your heart. In those moments, it’s where the top players give their best tennis. I want to be one of the best tennis players in the world, so have to give my extra in those moments and show the opponent I’m fresh, like I’m playing in the first game of a match,” Alcaraz said after the match.

He’ll celebrate by getting a tattoo of today’s date to sit alongside those other Grand Slam triumphs on September 11, 2022 and July 16, 2023.

Alcaraz now joins his heroes Nadal, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Moya and Albert Costa in winning here. He’s young enough to have them as reference points in his youth, idols at an arm’s length, but now he has Ferrero coaching him, and Alcaraz is mentioned in the same breath as those he dreamed of emulating.

It takes a little while for the French Open to adopt a new son as their own. The chants of “Ole!” only broke out as Alcaraz prepared to serve for the championship. Nadal had to earn their love, and now he’s immortalized here in a statue.

Alcaraz has now joined the lists of greats who have won this tournament. But he’s only getting started, and if he continues developing his game in this way, the Spanish anthem is going to be a regular here for years to come.

“I just want to keep going, and let’s see how many Grand Slams I’m gonna take at the end of my career,” Alcaraz said on Sunday. “Hopefully reach the [record of] 24, but right now I’m going to enjoy my third one, and let’s see in the future.”

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