Goodbye Carlitos, welcome Carlos: the Alcaraz acid test

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Is Alcaraz the best tennis player of the year? That is debatable.
His US Open and the Masters 1000 in Madrid and Miami, in addition to the trophy that the ATP gave him this Wednesday as recognition of the year-end number one, can only be compared in this 2022 to the campaigns of the eternal ones: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
The ranking, while an objective measure, does not always define who the “MVP” is, in NBA parlance. To put it in context, winning Roland Garros is much more than being crowned in Cordoba, Rio, Santiago, Houston, Halle and Gstaad. Although the points system says it is exactly the same, and that bag of titles is very juicy, the Grand Slams are the real sculptors of legends.
Nadal has Australia and the French Open in 2022. The Serb, Wimbledon, Rome and ‘easily’ getthe ATP FInals if he continues with the level shown so far: he opened the day sweeping 6-4, 6-1 with Andrey Rublev. “One of the best matches I played this year, particulary in the second set. Just a flawless set really, ” Djokovic said.
Carlos Alcaraz arrived in Turin, though not as he would have liked. He is not in Italy fighting for the Masters Cup, but he did pick up, very happy, the 2022 leader trophy. Without tennis clothes. Dressed formally, with shirt and jacket.
He apologized for not being able to play, before recieving a standing ovation. Very nervous, he mumbled his English and charmed with his smile: “I’ve done a very hard work. It was very difficult to get here. Your energy is a weapon for my tennis”. He closed with a few words in Italian for the fans. Pure charisma.
Alcaraz is already looking ahead to 2023. He is in the process of recovering from the abdominal injury he suffered in Paris, and will start the preseason on November 28th at the Equelite academy, the one run by his coaches, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Antonio Martínez Cascales.
He takes it very seriously. It will be a season he will face with a different backpack. Never before has someone so young carried that weight in January. And it also never happened, precisely since the year Alcaraz was born, that the annual ranking closed at the top with someone who does not respond to the names of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray.
“For the first time I felt pressure. I felt the obligation to win and that didn’t make me play at my level,” he said in August during the Montreal Masters 1000. Honest statements that showed humility and maturity. It is not easy to stand in front of the microphones after a defeat and give that confession. Before, he didn’t feel the pressure. I just saw the court as an amusement park.
What happened after that loss in Canada? The smiles quickly returned. There was more laughter. Martinez Cascales, Ferrero’s coach in his professional days, and who knows Alcaraz very well, recalled with CLAY an episode from the North American tour: “After he hit an impressive volley, instead of jumping up and down or expressing joy, he lowered his head and blew. He looked overly pressured. I sent a photo to him and Juan Carlos of that moment. I told Carlos to never react like that to such a good ball.”
Later on, his first Slam arrived.
Will he be able to start 2023 in the happy mode? In Australia he will land on top. He will be the tennis player that everyone will want to bring down. In Melbourne, he will not be 32nd in the ranking as he was last January. Alcaraz will face another unknown scenario. Huge challenge for the teenager.
“I want to maintain myself there,” Alcaraz said as his goal, when asked post-New York what was next: “The goal is to keep working with the same humility and keep trying to win tournaments like this one. 22 majors? For now I’m thinking about the second one”.
The second one: Melbourne? Djokovic has been confirmed in the tournament. The Serb is hungry and eager to begin to forget the circus that opened in 2022 the annual tennis conversation, to move on to talk about the tenth Australian Open. If not there, then comes Roland Garros, with Nadal in search of his fifteenth title. And then Wimbledon, whose grass he still doesn’t quite understand.
Add to that the rest of his generation, which is already shining and promises an explosive 2023. Felix Aliassime (who has beaten him in their three meetings), Holger Rune, Frances Tiafoe and Casper Ruud.
Alcaraz is no longer Carlitos. Now Carlos must carry the immense pressure of starting the season as the best. A difficult task. An acid test to see what the youngest number one in history is made of.
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