NEW YORK – When Carlos Alcaraz felt a duty to win, he lost. When he didn’t see the court as a playground, he fared the worst of the year. In Montreal, he would speak candidly after losing in his opener to Tommy Paul: “For the first time, I felt pressure.”
The 19-year-old was quick to diagnose his sin, as he explained before the start of the US Open.
“Being the second seed, fourth-ranked, having won other two Masters 1000 in the year… I felt the obligation to win and that didn’t make me play at my level. I was held back. In this tournament I want to smile again on the court,” he said.
To play well, then, according to Alcaraz, you have to meet certain requirements: enjoy yourself, have fun, have a good time. Doesn’t matter if that’s followed by a defeat. But those are the basic ingredients to get a victory, and in New York the recipe in every round was to smile on the court.
His technical advisor Antonio Martínez Cascales told CLAY that he let him know that he would perform better by showing his teeth with a laughing face, referring to a moment he experienced on the US Open series: “After he hit an impressive volley, instead of jumping up and down or expressing joy, he lowered his head and blew. He looked under too much pressure. I sent a photo to him and Juan Carlos (Ferrero) of that moment. I told Carlos never to react like that to such a good ball.”
Martinez told him to get back to his old self. To be as animated as possible, to scream and shout. The same advice that his father Carlos gave him before the final that propelled him to become the youngest number one in history: “I told him to have fun, it’s for sure an important match, but it’s still just another match. The family has given him all the encouragement in the world.”
To win a Grand Slam you have to have great tennis, be at your best physically and very strong mentally. Martínez believes that the latter is the most important thing, as he analysed for CLAY: “It was demonstrated that winning three matches in the fifth set against such tough opponents is impossible without an iron mentality like Carlitos’”.
That mental solidity that led Alcaraz to his first Grand Slam title and the assault on the top of the rankings is for Martínez a key moment in the change of era in tennis. “We come from an era that hasn’t passed yet, because Nadal and Djokovic are still playing at an impressive level. Federer, and if we add Murray for the time he was doing well, they marked an incredible epoche. But I think Carlos comes with new blood. He has a huge talent, he’s a hard worker and a very humble guy. He will win a lot of tournaments and give a lot of joy.”
Alcaraz with the trophy in Times Square // Getty
War movie nights
The night before the final, Alcaraz looked to the Spartan army that fought the Battle of Thermopylae for inspiration. The Saturday night was spent with his brother Álvaro watching 300: “We like to watch films and videos on the nights before the games, to motivate us to go out on the court with everything we’ve got.”
The themes are always epic. Another film they watched in New York was Gladiator. “I always try to give more emotional support, with things outside of tennis. The talks are given to him by others.”
His family and his large work team with “fantastic people and great professionals”, according to his father, accompanied him all the way to his first Grand Slam title.
Now the sponsorship boom is coming, but Alcaraz González is cautious about this commercial avalanche: “This is something new for us, we don’t know where to start. We’ll go little by little and we’ll make our way with the events that come along.”
“It’s very special, it’s a unique thing, a dream. This is very complicated, very difficult to reach, very sacrificed. It’s amazing for parents to see their son achieve the dream that he had as a child with hard work and effort, so we live it with great satisfaction and pride,” he said at the Arthur Ashe, while his son was doing the photo sessions that were holding him back.
The rest of the team was already waiting for him in a Manhattan restaurant to celebrate winning the “war” like a Spartan hero who forgets the pressure.