The ‘brutal charisma’ and staggering game of Carlos Alcaraz

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AFTER 3 HOURS and 35 minutes of tennis on the red clay court in Madrid, Carlos Alcaraz aims his serve out wide. Novak Djokovic, who has spent more time ranked No. 1 than anybody, lunges, grunting as he reaches awkwardly with his backhand to return the 19-year-old’s serve. Alcaraz is up 6-5 in the third-set tiebreaker of the semifinals at the 2022 Madrid Open. In his first career match against Djokovic, he’s a point away from a win that would have seemed preposterous mere months ago.

Djokovic’s return floats softly toward the middle of the court, and Alcaraz scampers sideways, practically to the doubles alley, so he can unleash his powerful forehand. He rips it down the line. There’s a second of silence before the crowd realizes that Djokovic, the best defender in tennis, will not take even a single step to attempt a response. Then, the Madrid fans — Alcaraz’s countrymen — erupt.

Alcaraz extends his arms, tilts his head up and closes his eyes. He hits the ball into the crowd and runs over to hug Djokovic. Then, he grins wide, looking at his parents and punching his fist in the air. His carefully curated team members — his parents, his agent since he was 12 years old, his coach who is a former world No. 1 — rejoice, hugging each other and laughing.

Spain’s teenage phenom, who turned 19 two days earlier, had just become the first man ever to beat Rafael Nadal and Djokovic in a single clay-court tournament. And more impressively: He had done it in two straight days.

Still, his work was not done. The next day, Alcaraz bulldozed defending champion Alexander Zverev to claim his fourth title of the 2022 season, becoming the youngest Madrid Open men’s champion and the youngest player in the history of the ATP Tour to beat three top-5 players in the same event. The previous month, he had become the youngest man to win the Miami Open. In between the two, he tacked on the title at the Barcelona Open and became the youngest player since Nadal (17 years ago) to break into the ATP top 10.

Today he’s ranked No. 6 in the world, and his versatile game — powerful groundstrokes mixed with perfectly executed drop shots backed by speed and fearlessness — carried him to a 28-3 record entering the French Open. A year ago, with his ranking almost in the triple digits (97), Alcaraz had to qualify just to play in the main draw at Roland Garros before advancing to the third round. This year, he is a favorite to win. In fact, he’s told those close to him, he’s ready to win. He has gone from playing in front of mostly empty seats to being the center of attention at Europe’s first major. His Instagram followers quadrupled in the past three months, from around 300,000 to 1.3 million. Google reports a 200 percent worldwide spike in searches for Alcaraz in the past three weeks.

Since Roger Federer won his first major title at Wimbledon in 2003, and Nadal his first at the French Open in 2005, the tennis world has grown accustomed to seeing one of three players — Federer, Nadal or Djokovic — lift the biggest and most important trophies. And while others have upset the Big 3 for titles along the way, never before has there been a sense of an imminent changing of the guard. Until now.

Djokovic named him “one of the main favorites” at the French Open. Nadal said he’s “unstoppable.” Naomi Osaka said Alcaraz has made the world excited about the ATP for the first time in a long time.

In a private moment, just days after departing Madrid, he’s asked how the tennis landscape shifted so suddenly. The man at the forefront is at a loss.

“I don’t know,” Alcaraz says.

But the truth of the matter is that his ascent all the way to the top has been carefully constructed. Madrid, after all, was not built in a day.

The “Carlos Project” has been years in the making.

CARLOS ALCARAZ REMEMBERS traveling to Croatia for his first tournament outside of Spain. Even back then, in his own 10-year-old way, he felt in his bones that he belonged on a tennis court. He felt awe when fans — which mostly consisted of family members and friends of the kids playing in the tournament — lined up to watch him play. He felt confident, like he could show them the variety of shots he had amassed in his back pocket at such a young age.

He lost in the final, but he came back home to El Palmar, Murcia, a changed boy. Until then, his life was standard in many ways. He went to school, had homework and spent time with his parents and three brothers. He had been playing tennis since he was 4 years old — he’d hung a poster of Federer, his idol, on his bedroom wall — but after his trip to Croatia, he knew that he wanted tennis to become a bigger part of his future.

“I fell in love with the game,” Alcaraz says.

Carlos Sr., who was a former player and a tennis coach, understood his son’s desire immediately. But money was a concern. Traveling abroad for tournaments cost thousands of euros, and that was not something his family could swing often. A businessman from Murcia, Alfonso Lopez Rueda, sponsored Carlos’ trip to Croatia and decided to continue helping him until further opportunities presented themselves.

Those opportunities weren’t far away. Around the same time, Albert Molina, an agent for IMG, a sports talent management company, watched Alcaraz play for the first time while on a scouting trip. Molina, who had formerly represented Spain’s David Ferrer, a mainstay in the top 10 from 2007-2016, remembers not being able to look away. This boy is special, he thought. If nurtured properly, he has the skills to be one of the best players in the country.

“Even at 12, Carlos was different from all the players his age,” Molina told ESPN earlier this month. “He knew how to do everything on the court. He liked to serve, he liked to go to the net, he liked to do the drop shot.”

The big element Molina thought Alcaraz needed help with: his decision-making skills. He had variety, but that variety confused him. He didn’t know which shot to select and when. Other 12-year-olds worldwide, meanwhile, faced the same dilemma over which pair of socks to select.

So Molina got to work, first convincing Alcaraz’s parents (who declined to be interviewed for this story) to allow him to sign with Molina, and then convincing IMG that Alcaraz was a prodigy. With IMG’s support, he believed Alcaraz could become the best player in the world.

The partnership between the Alcarazes and Molina was one of patience and trust, keeping Carlos’ long-term well-being in mind, Molina says. They dubbed it the “Carlos Project.”

Step 1 was finding a coach — somebody who knew the ins and outs of tennis, and who could help Alcaraz navigate not just his game on the court, but his emotional well-being off the court.

Enter fellow Spaniard, former world No. 1 and 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Ferrero, who in early 2018 had ended his coaching relationship with Zverev, was looking for his next pupil. He had seen Alcaraz as a 12-year-old in a tournament in Spain. So when Alcaraz’s parents and Molina requested a meeting with him, he was excited. After his experience with Zverev, who was already an accomplished player, a chance to coach a player from the beginning of his professional career appealed to Ferrero.

When they met, something clicked. Alcaraz’s parents felt like they could trust Ferrero, Molina says, and they believed Ferrero’s experience as both a former world No. 1 and a coach of a top-5 player could help boost Alcaraz’s career.

“To work with a prodigious talent — one who is not ready yet — but you have to [give] everything to make [all of it] work together, that’s a great opportunity,” Ferrero says to ESPN.

Ferrero signed on to coach Alcaraz in 2018 — and has spent most days since with the teenager, shaping his life on and off the court.

Sooner than either expected, a champion took form.

SPANISH TENNIS PLAYER Feliciano Lopez, doubling as the tournament director of the 2021 Madrid Open, walks onto the court carrying a large — and somewhat mountainous looking — chocolate cake on a tray. Alcaraz, wearing a black mask, holds one end of the tray eagerly, and the two pose for a photo. “Happy Birthday” plays in the stadium, and the fans sing Feliz Cumpleaños. Nadal walks over, Alcaraz’s pink shirt matching Nadal’s pink shorts. They pose for another photo.

“No te la comas toda,” Nadal says to Alcaraz, pulling his mask down and smiling. Don’t eat all of it. He grabs his hand and gives Alcaraz a hug.

It’s May 5, 2021 — Carlos Alcaraz’s 18th birthday. Moments before, he had lost in straight sets (winning just three games) to Nadal, his countryman and one of the greatest ever to play the sport. Alcaraz had watched Nadal play all his life — Rafa won his first French Open title when Alcaraz was just 2 years old.

Alcaraz hadn’t been able to muster much resistance against Nadal, but it was his first time playing one of the Big 3 — that, too, on his 18th birthday — and that was a coming of age moment in and of itself.

In May 2021, Alcaraz was not ready to beat Nadal — few are — but he had made huge strides just three years after he began working with Ferrero. Since 2018, the former world No. 1 traveled with Alcaraz to almost every tournament he played, including the minor ATP Challengers and ITF events. Ferrero provided consistency — and more importantly, a perspective from having beaten some of the best players on tour, including Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Ferrero sat with Alcaraz and drew out a road map that included working on different aspects of his game, improving his physical shape as his body grew, and gaining confidence in himself.

Soon, Alcaraz began to see results. His opponents did, too.

Jannik Sinner, a 20-year-old Italian who is ranked No. 12 in the world, remembered playing Alcaraz at a Challenger tournament in Spain in 2019 in a clash of teens.

“After the match I asked him how old he is and we had a little chat because I knew that he would arrive very soon, and that [has been] the case,” Sinner says to ESPN. “Now, he has improved basically everything. He can do whatever he wants with the ball. He has a great hand and a lot of power. He’s a very special player.”

Alcaraz was named the ATP Tour’s Newcomer of the Year in 2020 after climbing 350 spots in the rankings and winning three ATP Challenger Series titles. By May 2021, he had broken into the top 100.

The smaller titles made him hungry for more. And in September 2021, he got his first taste of stardom.

At the end of a four-hour plus third-round match in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open — his fourth time playing in a Grand Slam tournament main draw — Alcaraz flopped to the court on his back, holding his hands over his face as he sobbed. More than 22,000 people rose to their feet, clapping and cheering the 18-year-old who had just upset Stefanos Tsitsipas, the world No. 3, in a fifth-set tiebreaker.

Every young player needs a moment — a breakthrough — that sets the stage for their success. For Alcaraz, this was that moment, and the crowd realized it. It was his first time n Arthur Ashe — the biggest tennis stadium in the world. It was his first time beating a top-5 player. It was his first time reaching the fourth round of a Grand Slam. By the end of his run, he became the youngest man to reach the quarterfinals of the US Open since 1963 (he retired with an injury vs. Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime).

“A new star rises,” one headline read. “A star is born,” another one read.

“For me it’s a dream come true,” Alcaraz said at the news conference.

As Ferrero sat in the stands watching the dream unfold, he found himself believing Alcaraz could become the next No. 1 in the world.

“He was different [from] kids his age — he thrived in those big moments,” Ferrero says now. “You step on court and you feel the bigness of the court. It’s noisy, there’s people everywhere, and he felt comfortable, so at home. He just went for it.”

Two months later, after Alcaraz ended the 2021 season with the Next Gen ATP Finals trophy, he sat down with Ferrero and the team and came up with a plan for 2022. The next step in the “Carlos Project”? Break into the top 10 by December 2022. By April, he’d need a new goal.

In May, one year after facing Nadal on his 18th birthday, Alcaraz remarkably found himself in the same situation: at the Madrid Open against the king of clay. The only difference: A year’s worth of growth and training. After splitting the first two sets, Alcaraz made his way to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror, splashing water on his face. He had tweaked his ankle in a nasty fall in the second set, forcing a medical timeout. His ankle seemed fine, but he had lost his momentum, dropping a lopsided second set 6-1. In the bathroom, he looked in the mirror and said, “OK, Charlie (he wants to be called Charlie or Carlitos as he finds Carlos to be “too serious.”), if you’re not going to pull out, think about playing, don’t think on your ankle. Don’t think on nothing else, fight till the very last ball, because you know that you are capable of doing it.”

When the third set began, he was an entirely different player — making Nadal come to the net with his well-timed drop shots and freezing him with his powerful forehand passing shots. He wrapped up the third set in just over a half-hour (the duration of the entire match was 2 hours and 28 minutes).

Just one year earlier, the teenager had no answers against Nadal. He hadn’t mastered his shot selection, his body looked spindly, and more importantly, he didn’t have the experience to believe that he could keep up with a legend. A year later, his muscles bulged in his thighs and arms, his shot selection seemed impeccable, and his confidence spilled out of his pores. After that first encounter he told himself that the next time he played Nadal, he would win a set. And, he did, in the 2022 Indian Wells semifinals. That day, he told himself he would win two sets against Nadal the next time. And he did in Madrid, winning two sets and the match.

“It’s crazy how quickly he adapts,” Ferrero says. “Both on and off the court.”

CARLOS ALCARAZ SCOOCHES into a chair in his hotel room in Rome a few days after his Madrid Open victory. He’s wearing a bright orange T-shirt embroidered with a smiling koala next to a tennis racket. He has several interviews set up for the day, some with Spanish news organizations and some with global news media. He is peering into the Zoom screen with a big smile on his face and thanks me profusely for taking the time to talk to him. People who know him often describe him as humble, and I get a heavy dose of it. I ask him about it and he says, promptly, “The most important thing is to be a good person — to ball kids, to fans, to all — before I am a good player.”

Which means he will stay back to sign an extra ball, pose for an extra photo. If he can make one more fan happy, he will. Which is what he did, after he won the Miami Open and the cameramen had packed up their equipment. For an hour, he signed balls, posed for photos and responded to every fan’s request.

What is it about Alcaraz that is making fans line up? It’s possible that he’s having his moment — his first taste of worldwide success — at a time when tennis fans are craving somebody new, somebody with staying power. Federer has not played since Wimbledon 2021. Nadal won the Australian Open this year and two other tournaments, but his injuries and age are catching up to him. Djokovic is still a force, but due to his choice to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, he has played half the number of matches he would have played this season He was deported from Australia before the first Grand Slam of the season due to his vaccination status, and he is unable to play in some tournaments in countries that have vaccine mandates.

But that’s only part of it. Alcaraz has the kind of game that’s exciting — it’s flashy, it’s aggressive and it’s unpredictable. It’s fresh.

“I really enjoy watching Alcaraz play,” Lopez told the Spanish newspaper ABC prior to this year’s Madrid Open. “He has a brutal charisma, a way of playing that engages, that creates fans.” Djokovic shared in an interview at the Madrid Open that his 7-year-old son, who had adored Nadal for so long, had a new favorite player: Carlos Alcaraz.

“He doesn’t hit his drop shot as a bailout, he’s hitting the drop shots when he’s in the offensive position. When you think he’s going to crunch the forehand, he freezes you with that [drop shot],” says Brad Gilbert, former world No. 4 and former coach of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray. “The disguise of it — it’s like he’s got you on your back heels, and he’s fearless [in] playing it, and right after [that shot] he is in a great position to hurt you with his forehand.”

Alcaraz is listed at 6-foot-1, which is similar to the Big 3 and a good four inches shorter than the “new” crop of top players including Zverev, Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev. “His game is explosive for his size,” Gilbert says.

Even though he has yet to win a Grand Slam, the world has pegged him as the next Nadal, but those comparisons don’t ring true to Alcaraz. If anything, he thinks his game resembles Federer’s — aggressive, always on the offensive with a touch that freezes even the best in the world.

“I don’t want to be the next Rafa or Roger,” he says. “I want to be the new Carlitos.”

The differences between a 19-year-old Alcaraz and the aging Big 3 are striking. Alcaraz exudes energy at the fourth hour of play, while Nadal has spoken about the chronic pain he is playing with. Combine the power of Alcaraz’s youth with his wide grin, his willingness to take the extra time to make fans happy and his ability to compare his game to Federer’s without sounding obnoxious, and a captivating global star emerges. The force is strong with this one.

The biggest change in Alcaraz this year is that he has built up his confidence — believing he has the ability to win against Nadal or Djokovic, Ferrero says. Alcaraz might be surprised by his results, but he doesn’t walk on the court without the absolute conviction that he could beat his opponent. Not that a win is guaranteed, but that it is possible.

“He is coming in like a freight train and it looks to me like he’s only going to get better,” Gilbert says. “Five years from now, I’d be surprised if he hasn’t won at least five to seven majors.”

In two months — from March 21 when the Miami Open began to May 22 when the French Open started — Alcaraz has a win-loss record of 16-1, two ATP 1000s titles and one ATP 500s title. He has won more than $3.7 million this year.

“Mentally and physically he is ready,” Ferrero says.

With success has come intense interest from brands and companies, clamoring to work with Alcaraz in some capacity. The interest started after his US Open run, but it reached new heights after his Madrid Open victory. Molina’s days are packed with back-to-back calls with brands. They pepper him with questions about Alcaraz’s availability and interest in signing with them.

Alcaraz and his team are sticking to the game plan laid out in the “Carlos Project” and are looking at his future as a “long-distance race,” Molina says. It’s important to protect the 19-year-old and to set him up for a long and successful career. As of now, he has signed with Nike (for clothes and shoes), Babolat (for rackets) and Rolex.

He shares that although his life has turned upside down, he managed to get his driver’s license a few months ago. He has been thinking about his dream car, a Lamborghini, he says. The prices of a Lamborghini in Spain range from 170,000 euros to 2 million euros, which he could now afford, but his parents, who still handle his finances, have asked him to wait.

“He’s the same Carlitos as when he was 12 — more mature, but the same personality, simple and happy to be around people,” Molina says.

And just as the world has come to know Alcaraz, so too has Alcaraz come to know himself. His own self-assessments border on prophecy. Before he won his first ATP Challenger tournament in 2020 in Trieste, Italy, he told Ferrero, “Juan Carlos, I am ready to win a title.” He repeated the phrase before winning his maiden 250-level title, in 2021 in Umag, Croatia. Before opening the 2022 season with a win at the 500-level stop in Rio, he told his coach he was ready to take the next step up. The same words were spoken prior to winning the Masters 1000 event last month in Miami.

Now, there’s only one level left. A few days after winning the Madrid Open, and days before the French Open, Alcaraz approached Fererro: “Juan Carlos, I am ready to win a Grand Slam.”

“He doesn’t just say it — he says it when he really feels it, and it’s always a very special moment,” Ferrero says. “When he played the US Open, he didn’t tell me. When he played last year in Roland Garros he didn’t tell me, but now something is changed. So, let’s see.”

Is he going to be the 2022 French Open champion? The road won’t be smooth. On Sunday, the sixth-seeded Alcaraz opened his bid for his first major title with a routine win over Juan Ignacio Londero. He next plays fellow Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the second round. Looming further down the draw could be third-seeded Zverev in the quarterfinals, and the winner of top-seeded Djokovic vs. fifth-seeded Nadal in the semis. If the tournament follows form, second-seeded Medvedev would be waiting in the final.

“Of course I want to win it,” Alcaraz says and smiles. “And I am ready for it.”

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