Carlos Alcaraz had barely competed on hard courts prior to this season. He was the semifinalist at M25 Martos back in 2019, then received a wildcard for the Mallorca Challenger and lost in straight sets to Jurij Rodionov. The 2020 season saw him take tour-leading three Challenger titles, but all of these trophies came on the dirt. Alcaraz played just two hard court events last year, winning a duo of 15K ITF events in Manacor at the loss of just two sets (to Pawel Cias and Billy Harris). Even though he went undefeated in these two lower-tier tournaments, his ability to compete with the very best on hard courts was under a huge question mark. After all, the 18-year-old hadn’t even faced a top 300 opponent on this surface before 2021.
That all changed with a successful Australian Open qualifying campaign as he took out Filip Horansky, Evgeny Karlovskyi, and Hugo Dellien to make his Grand Slam debut. Even before the first Major of the year, Alcaraz scored a massive 6-3 6-3 hard-court win over then-World No. 14 David Goffin. He dominated his opening round at the Australian Open against Botic van de Zandschulp but was thrown out of Melbourne after a disappointing four-set loss to Mikael Ymer. The Spaniard’s groundstrokes were really off on the day, producing a total of 60 unforced errors that kept him from going further in that tournament.
As Alcaraz lost in the opening round of the next three hard-court events he played before the clay season rolled around, his true level on that surface remained somewhat enigmatic. He was once again fabulous on the dirt, taking a Challenger title at Oeiras, qualifying and reaching the third round at the French Open, and ultimately capping this part of the season off with his maiden tour-level title at Umag.
Kicking off the North American hard court season in style
Perhaps aided by all the confidence from his clay-court success, Alcaraz arrived in the United States and instantly showed why he was going to be a factor even on this surface from now on. Over the course of two very solid weeks at Cincinnati and Winston-Salem, Alcaraz won five matches, all against Top 100 opposition. Before this month, his only victory against an opponent of this class (in a completed match) was the aforementioned win over Goffin. The Spaniard proved that it was not going to be a one-time thing and that he was able to consistently take out solid players on hard as well.
On Monday, Carlos Alcaraz defeated Cameron Norrie in the opening round of the US Open. A significant underdog in one of the highly-anticipated clashes of the first stage of the tournament, the Spaniard produced a fantastic performance to completely dominate the baseline rallies. He was able to launch 38 winners past Norrie, including 16 forehand groundstrokes. Not the most powerful of servers, Alcaraz has to be brilliant on return and he broke the Brit six times in the 6-4 6-4 6-3 victory that took him just under two hours.
A punching game that fits hard courts well
“He likes to be very aggressive all the time. He likes to play close to the baseline,” is the description of his game that his coach, former World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero gave in an interview with ATPTour.com last year. Indeed, Alcaraz tends to stay on top of the points and tries to look for opportunities to finish them, rather than outlast the opponent. Perhaps that’s why his game has been so easy to translate to other surfaces than clay. He’s still at his best on the dirt, because it puts less emphasis on serve, which has been an improving aspect of the youngster’s game, but is still rather subpar compared to most of the elite of the tennis tour.
Alcaraz played just one tournament on grass courts this year, making the second round at Wimbledon. Even there, he demonstrated his versatility by venturing way more often to the net with good success rates. Across all surfaces, another huge weapon of his game is the dropshot. Most players go for this play only in a very advantageous position, Alcaraz uses it as a more regular tactic and very often gets away with it by hiding it extremely well.
Can Carlos Alcaraz take out an elite opponent?
With Norrie now out of the way, Alcaraz can look a bit more forward into his US Open draw. In the second round, he’s going to face Arthur Rinderknech, the former Texas A&M college standout, who broke the top 100 this year (just like Alcaraz) and will provide a completely different challenge than the Brit. In his opener, Alcaraz was always going to be the one who gets to decide how the rallies are looking, playing Rinderknech will force him to battle for baseline dominance. The Frenchman has a brilliant serve and that will put a lot of pressure on Alcaraz to hold his own games. Fatigue could be a concern for Rinderknech though as he was heavily cramping in the deciding set against Miomir Kecmanovic (over 4 hours and 20 minutes), heroically coming back from being down two sets to love.
His potential third-round opponent could be either Stefanos Tsitsipas or Adrian Mannarino. Carlos Alcaraz has faced a Top 10 opponent three times in his career, all this year. He didn’t look too competitive in any of those matches. Against Alexander Zverev in Acapulco, Rafael Nadal in Madrid, and Daniil Medvedev at Wimbledon, he’s won just 14 games across seven sets. With the insanely high ceiling that Alcaraz has, he’ll be ready for a statement win like that at some point.
These are extreme examples but one could argue that Roger Federer defeating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, or Rafael Nadal upsetting Carlos Moya at Hamburg were instrumental in shaping the champions that we know them as today. A win like that (or a big run at a major) is coming for the Spaniard, but he might not be ready for it yet, especially on hard courts. Nevertheless, he’s shown that he will be a factor on this surface in the future, which is incredibly important given the clay season only lasts about three months.
Main Photo from Getty.