On practice court two of the Roland Garros complex there is barely room to move. Carlos Alcaraz is training under the sweltering sun that has beautified Paris even further throughout the tournament. “The truth is that it is incredible. We’ve been coming here for many years and we’ve never had such good weather,” says the world number one’s father, also called Carlos, a tennis lover who instilled his passion for the sport in his four sons — Álvaro (22), Carlos (20), Sergio (12) and Jaime (10) — and that is now dominated by his second-eldest. He is Carlitos, “the untouchable,” as defined by L’Èquipe, the unbeatable, a competitor who puts all his opponents on their heels and who, after a few days confined to the hotel to keep the bodywork in perfect tune, has chosen to return to the practice court. It takes him 20 minutes to leave as he attends to all the requests he can. On both sides of the court, his fans are cheering him on.
“He’s a very good boy, very normal. He understands and enjoys it,” says his grandfather, like his son and grandson another Carlos: the three Cs: “Head, heart and balls.” It is a motto that emblazoned by fire in Alcaraz’s mind, and tattooed on his forearm last December, when the young king of the ATP Tour was planning the decisive blow he wants to deliver this year. He is not too far away from his goal but, in reality, he is. Two wins away. First, on Friday, the colossal Novak Djokovic, and then it remains to be seen.
“We expect the best version of Nole [the nickname of Djokovic], he holds all the cards. We know that he always gets stronger deeper in tournaments, and at the end he is finely tuned; Carlos is fighting for his second Grand Slam final and Djokovic for history; they are different goals,” Alcaraz’s coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, said in the conference room before the meeting with the relatives of the boy to whom all eyes in tennis are directed. “Over these two days we will try to keep him calm and fresh in the head,” added Ferrero, who in August 2018 rejected several proposals from top players and accepted one from a skinny teenager who hit the ball like an angel and never stopped smiling.
At that time Alcaraz was 15 and attracting the attention of experts while he and his team were dreaming of Paris. “The first time we came here, Carlitos wasn’t even five years old. We’ve been coming here for 15 years, because we love it and it’s our favorite tournament,” says his grandfather, who defines Ferrero as “a straight-up guy, the best possible coach.” Carlos Sr says that back then, Alcaraz’s eyes lit up when he experienced the atmosphere and the matches, but that now, logically, everything has changed. That smiling kid can’t take even two steps today without being recognized and being asked to sign an autograph or take a photo. When he goes out into the street, he does so disguised under a cap and sunglasses so that he can enjoy a bit of normality.
“It still works here, but in Spain it’s mission impossible,” says his father, who inherited his own father’s enthusiasm for tennis along with the management of the El Palmar Tennis Club, the origin of it all. Alcaraz has set off a “Tiger Woods effect,” in the sport, Swedish commentator and former French Open champions Mats Wilander said this week, “because people want to be part of tennis because of him, as Tiger did in his day with golf.”
Outside the tournament, Alcaraz has been trying to switch off by watching movies with his mother Virginia; video game consoles are banned and the least possible attention is paid to social media, a source of distraction and a drain on energy that Alcaraz had previously invested more time than recommended on. He has only one idea in his head, the focus of being crowned champion at Roland Garros, where his relatives wander from one side of the complex to the other to watch as many matches as possible. Their attention is currently focused on a junior player, 15-year-old American Darwin Blanch, who trains throughout the year at Ferrero’s academy in Alicante, Spain.
“He’s very good, he’s doing very well here,” they note of Blanch during the conversation. “When he won in Miami [in March last year, Alcaraz’s first Masters 1000 title], I was there with him,” says his grandfather, who tries not to miss any of Alcaraz’s matches. He describes a competitor who does not get nervous, who is virtuous, who enjoys the game more than anybody. He has 100% faith in his grandson — who was a quarterfinalist a year ago in Paris, losing to Alexander Zverev — in the clash of the titans with Djokovic, although he admits: “He is the favorite. Wherever he competes, the favorite is Novak.”
Staying near the Eiffel Tower, in the same hotel frequented by Rafael Nadal until three years ago, Alcaraz has been trying to find the right balance between walks, board games and relaxing with his family. Meanwhile, the clock toward a game that could mark a generational turning point in the history of tennis is ticking down. “We must have belief, but getting ahead of ourselves would be a mistake for everyone, for us and for you [journalists]. We take it step by step,” says Ferrero, prudent and ambitious at the same time. “Carlos believes in himself, and that’s the most important thing. Every year he gets better and this will make him mature more. Win or lose.”
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