‘The rate he’s getting better is absolutely absurd’: Can Carlos Alcaraz find a way to win Wimbledon?

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LONDON — Highlight reels from Carlos Alcaraz’s first five matches at Wimbledon are already making the rounds online. But it’s not his 104 mph forehands — or the Roger Federer-esque around-the-post backhand — that have carried Alcaraz into his first Wimbledon semifinal.

It’s that the 2022 US Open champion has learned how to translate his dazzling speed to these courts, and how to deploy those shots on the surface on which he’s least comfortable. In only his fourth tournament on grass, the 20-year-old is molding himself into the shape of a Wimbledon contender.

“Carlos learns so much from every experience,” ESPN analyst Pam Shriver says. “And he’s had a pretty meaningful six weeks.”

Put another way, by fellow analyst James Blake: “The rate he’s getting better is absolutely absurd.”

Take this moment from Wednesday’s quarterfinal. Tied at 3-3 in the first-set tiebreak, Alcaraz and Holger Rune had played nearly identical tennis. More than an hour into their first Grand Slam matchup, the men — born six days apart in 2003 and the first players under 21 to meet in a Wimbledon quarterfinal — had scored 41 points apiece. Neither had broken serve. They had played brilliant, creative tennis at times but sloppy and tight at others.

Then Rune double-faulted and Alcaraz pounced. He took the next three points and the first set. As his final service-return winner skidded away from the court, he turned to his box and released a long, primal scream, the kind typically reserved for celebrating after match point.

“It was [letting go of] nerves, tension, everything,” Alcaraz said after the match. “The first set was really tough for me. A lot of nerves. I couldn’t control it at all. That huge scream after the first set helped me to put out all the nerves and start to enjoy the moment, to enjoy the match.”

From that point, Alcaraz settled into the style of aggressive, fearless, heady tennis that took him to No. 1 in the world, the youngest player ever to hold that distinction. In the second set, he made zero unforced errors. He made only one in the third set. (He’d made 12 in the first.) He won the match in straight sets and is into his third Grand Slam semifinal in a row, one of which — the 2022 US Open — he went on to win.

And that moment, when Alcaraz let out the howl heard ‘round Centre Court, may have been the key to it all. Just last month, in the third set of his French Open semifinal match against Novak Djokovic — a match he was expected to win — Alcaraz let the tension of the moment overtake him. He began to cramp up until he could barely move and eventually lost the match.

On Wednesday, it was as if Alcaraz had learned how to defeat the tension in his body. To release it and relax, and find the ability to do something that’s arguably more important to his game than those fierce forehands: smile through the nerves.

“Smiling for me, as I said a few times, is the key of everything,” Alcaraz said.

Alcaraz’s ascension has been a marvel to witness. The learning curve on his game, already the most complete of any player his age, ever, improves week to week and tournament to tournament like he is human AI. He does not like to lose — no great athletes do — but when he does, he smiles during news conferences as he discusses, in English and Spanish, how he will use the opportunity to learn and grow and arrive at the next tournament “different.”

“He goes home and learns,” says former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who recently announced her return to tennis and is in Wimbledon working as a TV analyst. “He asks, ‘What went wrong, why did I lose, what happened?’ and goes home and works. That’s what the best players in the world do. They aren’t happy with where they are. They want to do more, win more and win bigger.”

Since winning the US Open in September, Alcaraz has followed every loss but two by winning the next tournament. He hasn’t lost a match since the French Open and is on a 10-match win streak on grass, which is supposed to be his weakest playing surface. Twice in this tournament, he has looked unsure and unsteady and dropped the first set — against a former Wimbledon finalist and a top-25 player — and then rallied to win the next three. He has the lethal combination of being a player with a short-term memory for mistakes and an impossibly quick study.

A loss like the one he suffered in Paris could have derailed any player for a few months. Instead, there’s a good chance that, in three days, Alcaraz will face the guy who handed him that loss in the final here. But unlike their last meeting, he won’t be expected to win.

Because while Alcaraz has separated himself from the rest of the field, Djokovic — who has won seven Wimbledon titles, including the past four — remains the favorite. He’s on a 14-match win streak, has lifted the past two Grand Slam trophies and is on a path to win not only a record 24th major, but the calendar-year Grand Slam. If he continues to play at his best for the remainder of this tournament, he will be tough to beat.

Still, Alcaraz has said he will enjoy each match from here on out and play with a smile on his face. Earlier this fortnight, he talked about watching videos of matches from the ’90s and early 2000s and of his awe for Centre Court. He said playing in a Wimbledon final has been his dream since he was a kid. “Even better to play Novak,” he added.

Sounds like a man who’s ready for a rematch.

First, of course, he must remain focused on the task ahead: defeating No. 3 Daniil Medvedev in Friday’s semifinal. The men have played each other only twice and split their results. Alcaraz won their most recent meeting, in the Indian Wells final in March, but Medvedev beat him here in the second round two years ago.

“[Medvedev] is an amazing athlete,” Alcaraz said Wednesday. “He does almost everything well. He’s an octopus. He catches every ball. But going into the semifinal, I think I’m playing great. I have a lot of confidence right now.

“I lost the first match we played here,” he said of their 2021 meeting. “So, I had a lot to learn.”

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