Injuries And Cameron Norrie Combine To Prove That Carlos Alcaraz Is Human – Just

Carlos Alcaraz ahead of ATP Indian Wells

If a Pyrrhic victory is one in which the cost of victory is so great that it almost constitutes a defeat, then we need a new term for those defeats that are so heroic they are almost greater than any victory. Perhaps they could be called “Hannibalic defeats”, in honour of the great Carthaginian general who led elephants over the Alps into Italy but ultimately failed to conquer Rome. But whatever they are called, such a heroic, even legendary, defeat was what Carlos Alcaraz suffered against Cam Norrie in the 2023 ATP Rio Open final.

Notwithstanding his efforts in 2021, particularly reaching the US Open quarterfinal that year, it was really in Rio in 2022 that Alcaraz began his conquest of the world of men’s tennis. It was at that tournament that he served notice that he was not just a potentially great player but a potentially all-time great player, one who could redefine the possibilities for men’s tennis, even after its greatest golden age, the current Big Three (now Big Two) era, finally comes to an end.

That was because in Rio a year ago Alcaraz first proved that he was capable of achieving the seemingly impossible. The tropical spring downpours in the Brazilian capital had turned the 2022 edition of the tournament into virtually a 24-hour event, such that the quarterfinals and semifinals had to be played on the same day (the Saturday) before the last two weary men left standing competed in Sunday’s final. However, Alcaraz emerged from all the rain and rain delays as the victor, having beaten several current and former members of the world’s top 10, including Matteo Berrettini and Diego Schwartzman, en route to doing so.

That seemingly impossible achievement only paved the way for what was almost a whole year of seemingly impossible achievements for Alcaraz. They were too numerous to be listed here in their entirety, but the highlights included becoming the first man to beat both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the same clay-court tournament (the Madrid Masters) before winning it, and then going on to fulfil all his enormous potential by winning his first Major at the US Open in September and thereby becoming the world’s youngest ever #1-ranked male tennis player.

Indeed, so often did Alcaraz achieve the seemingly impossible in 2022 that he made it appear almost routine. And that was why it seemed that he might just achieve one more impossible achievement against Cam Norrie in the 2023 Rio Open final, before literally painful reality, in the form of a serious leg injury, intervened to prove that he is human – just.

The 2023 ATP Rio Open final was an immediate sequel to the ATP Buenos Aires Open final the week before, which Alcaraz had won against Norrie in straight sets and with relative ease. That was despite the fact that it was his first tournament in four months after the series of autumn/fall injuries that finally curtailed his epic 2022 season and prevented him from competing in this year’s Australian Open.

Alcaraz won the first, fiercely contested set in Rio this year when he finally managed to break Norrie in the final game of the set to take it 7-5. As he had done in Argentina a week earlier, he then went 3-0 up in the second set and it seemed inevitable that he would cruise to a South American double-triumph. But then everything changed and, despite the fact that he ultimately lost, the legend of Alcaraz only grew.

First, Norrie fought back superbly to take the second set 6-4. Then, as the third and final set began, it soon became apparent that Alcaraz was fighting another serious injury, this time to his right thigh. Initially he had it heavily strapped before deciding, only a few games into the third set, that the strapping was actually so tight that it was affecting the blood-flow to his leg and with it his usually imperious movement around the court. Consequently, while still actually in a game, he tore the bandages from his thigh and played on without them.

The extent of Alcaraz’s injury became increasingly obvious as the third set went on, because eventually he appeared almost completely unable to move, which included not being able to push off the court properly to serve, and so was reduced to effectively playing tennis without moving, or at least without moving very much. What followed was astonishing, possibly the most extraordinary display of hitting – sheer, focused hitting of winners to end points quickly – since Roger Federer produced one of the finest sets ever played to beat Rafael Nadal in the fifth set of the final of the 2017 Australian Open.

In addition to producing a series of seemingly impossible performances over the last 12 months, Alcaraz has produced many seemingly impossible shots. However, the finest of them all may have come near the end of the third set against Norrie, when the two players were locked at four games each. After yet another powerful exchange of shots, Norrie produced a superb short-angled cross-court shot that seemed impossible for Alcaraz to reach, especially on just one leg.

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Yet he not only reached it but produced a winner from so far downtown (as Americans say) that it was positively suburban. Norrie was so stunned that initially he appeared unable to accept that Alcaraz had actually produced a winner, until the umpire and line judge directed him to the correct, winning mark on the clay.

Norrie had the last laugh, as he eventually broke Alcaraz in that game and went on to serve out for the match and the championship. Yet, if anything, Alcaraz only increased the tennis world’s admiration for him because of the nature of his defeat. To take Norrie, one of the very fittest players on tour (a man who, according to doctors who have examined him, has an unusually large lung capacity), right to the edge of defeat on one functioning leg was arguably even more impressive than all his victories over the last year.

In the end, the one-legged Alcaraz was unable to match the near-miraculous feat of the one-legged Patrick Mahomes, who won his second Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this month after virtually limping through the play-offs and then being hit on the same troublesome leg during the season-ending finale. Nevertheless, Alcaraz proved beyond doubt that, as young as he is, he is already a true tennis titan, who must be carried off the court before he is beaten.

It is to be hoped, especially after his injury-afflicted end to last season, that the current injury that Alcaraz is suffering from is only the result of the incredible overloading that he has suffered in the last fortnight; having not played a tournament for four months, he then played two in two weeks, playing nine matches in 12 days and winning eight of them (before going incredibly close to winning in the ninth).

So long as it is not evidence of some underlying physical weakness, it will only fuel the growing myth of Alcaraz and the add to the growing belief that he really is capable of the impossible – perhaps even the ultimate impossible feat in tennis of beating both Nadal and Djokovic again at the biggest clay-court tournament of them all, the French Open.

Main photo credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports