Wrapped in a blue tracksuit, Carlos Alcaraz chats in the Pala Alpitour press room hurting, although at 20 years old he maintains the same self-critical and constructive spirit that usually follows each of his defeats. He has just lost to Alexander Zverev in his opening match at the 2023 ATP Finals, a performance that confirmed what was suspected before his debut at the season-ending event: Alcaraz is mentally exhausted. Emotionally saturated. “I didn’t feel good on a tennis level, I have to improve,” he said after a 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 loss to the German, a two-time ATP Finals champion. “It’s been a long and demanding year. I have to improve to get to this point of the season in better conditions, above all mentally. It’s probably mental fatigue,” he added.
The Spaniard admitted that at this stage of the season, the body and especially the head are failing. Defeat against Zverev means that either he wins the second match of the group stage against Andrey Rublev — beaten by Daniil Medvedev (6-4, 6-2) in the Monday night session — or his first appearance at the ATP Finals will be over. In his brief but intense journey through the tennis elite, Alcaraz is facing a crisis scenario for the first time. Never before has he lost three times in a row on the ATP Tour or experienced a similar feeling of moving through quicksand. He knows that he needs one last push, but his mind is wavering and his tennis has lost its joy and neatness, that hedonistic seasoning that makes him different.
Whatever happens in Turin, the counter reflects that he has played 75 matches this year, already surpassing the 73 of the 2022 season. Alcaraz is no longer the youngster who excites and surprises: today he is subject to the rigors of statistics and the permanent scrutiny of the millions of eyes that follow him and judge him, who demand he wins day after day, week after week. The margin for error has disappeared. The erosion is physical, with injuries and niggles in the plantar fascia, back and other areas, but above all, Alcaraz is now victim to a psychological fatigue that he has never suffered before now. Everything was new for him previously, and every success a gain. Now the bar is set very high and he is facing the demands that go with his ranking.
“If I want to win this tournament […] I have to get to this point of the year relaxed with a desire to win everything that is put in front of me,” he said. Before the tail end of the season, Alcaraz enjoyed seven extraordinary months in which he won six trophies, including Wimbledon, Indian Wells and Queen’s. He has been processing a myriad of emotions amid a media clamor, a sponsorship scramble and the adoration of tennis fans, particularly the younger generation, who identify with his carefree attitude and his honest discourse, which openly displays his desire to succeed. The popular wave, with all its pros and cons, is huge.
Injuries and stress
Although his personal and professional circle tries to protect him, impermeability is impossible and the dynamics of the circuit offer little respite even though he has attempted to manage his court time by decongesting his calendar. Tennis forces players to play and play, and in the case of Alcaraz, the world number two, to win and win. It is the toll that all the top players go through. Injuries have not been benevolent either, adding an extra level of stress through the fear of aggravating a problem.
“In the end, I’m 20 years old, although I consider myself a player with some experience because of everything I’ve been through. I still have a long way to go, obviously, but I’m getting better and better at it,” he says of the demands of the circuit. “At least I know exactly what is happening and what I have to improve on. I will have to get to work,” added the Spaniard, who had not lost three successive matches since 2021, when ATP Tour defeats in Acapulco (Zverev) and Miami (Emil Ruusuvuori) were preceded by another in a challenger event in Gran Canaria (Marco Trungelliti).
“At the end of the second set and the start of the third, I hit three or four shots out straight away. That can’t happen, although everyone has their own style. I watch Novak, for example, and he doesn’t give anything away straight away. My consistency was really lacking against Zverev,” Alcaraz said after making 28 unforced errors against the German, almost the same number as he did winners (29).
“It’s the only tournament where a loss does not knock you out. I still have a chance to continue improving and to get through the group stage. Tomorrow I’ll practice to improve everything that I didn’t do well today, which is a lot...” added the world number two, who has battled Djokovic for the number one spot during the final straight of 2023. “I’m getting increasingly better at facing this kind of player, and even more so here, where every match could be a Grand Slam final.”
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