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Carlos Alcaraz’s ‘spectacular’ season (with a couple of buts)

‘Maybe I struggled to handle the last part of the season,’ said the world number two as he seeks the consistency and balance to challenge Novak Djokovic’s dominance of the ATP Tour

Carlos Alcaraz
Alcaraz celebrates a point during the semifinals of the Masters Cup against Djokovic, last Saturday in Turin.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE (REUTERS)
Alejandro Ciriza

Carlos Alcaraz smooths his fringe from right to left, a tic he picked up some time ago, smiles and reviews his season at the Pala Alpitour in Turin before going on vacation, well-deserved given how many games — 77 — he has played in 2023. “It’s been a spectacular year,” Alcaraz said during a press conference at the ATP Finals after his semi-final defeat to eventual champion Novak Djokovic. “You have to realise that I picked up 2000 more points than the previous year but played one fewer Grand Slam. I didn’t play in Australia, and it was still my best season. It was incredible, I played some great matches. I’ve improved little by little and also learned how to deal with the pressure, and with difficult moments,” said the world number two, who was asked if he would be happy with a similar showing in 2024: “Yes, yes, where do I sign?”

Alcaraz is satisfied, but unaware that his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, is listening nearby. The former world number one later attends to correspondents and responds to a question from this newspaper with a little slap on the wrist that, he thinks, will force the player to reflect on next season. Ferrero was asked about the drop in his Alcaraz’s performance levels after the US Open, a situation that also occurred in 2022, and he does not beat around the bush in his response: today, being an elite tennis player means being one for 365 days a year, without interruption, on and off the court. There are no breaks, or the possibility of switching off for a few hours.

“To be a great professional, you have to stay on top of every aspect. You have to do what is necessary at all times; train at the right time, enjoy yourself at the right time, and disconnect at the right time,“ said Ferrero, who at 43 remains as demanding with himself as he is with his player. “He has to improve on certain things, which he knows, and he is trying.”

Ferrero understands that Alcaraz has again been penalized by a certain dispersion during the last third of the season. It happened last year, when commercial and other commitments, together with his growing fame, threw him off after he won the US Open, and the slump has been repeated in the final stretch of a year that started badly when he missed the Australian Open due to a muscular issue, and that ended in a similar vein, as Alcaraz acknowledges: “A few days ago I read an interview in which Juan Carlos said that I had to learn that the season is from January to November,” Alcaraz said. “That couldn’t be more true. Maybe I struggled to handle the last part of the season. As I said, I have so many things to improve on, and that’s one of them. Learning that a tennis player’s season doesn’t end in June, August and September, it carries on until November.”

Alcaraz serves during a match at the ATP Finals in Turin.
Alcaraz serves during a match at the ATP Finals in Turin.Valerio Pennicino (Getty Images)

Style, consistency and calendar

“I’m not at his level, I want to beat him. So I have to get better,” Alcaraz asserted decisively of his rivalry with Djokovic. “It should be beneficial. He is critical and he knows it perfectly well,” Ferrero expands. “Many of the defeats that hurt him, like what happened at Roland Garros, serve him; that one helped him at Wimbledon. In the end they sting him and help him to really realize what his weaknesses are and what his virtues are, to improve things.”

Apart from consistency — made more difficult by the accumulated mental fatigue during the season — and the leap he is looking for to perform at Djokovic’s level, another aspect that worries Alcaraz and his team are injuries. A thigh injury kept him out of Australia; his hamstring flared up in the Rio de Janeiro final against Cameron Norrie; a post-traumatic arthritis in his left hand and muscular discomfort in his spine deprived him of Monte Carlo; he cramped up in Paris due to tension against Djokovic; and a problem in his left fascia together with some discomfort in his lower back forced him to withdraw from Basel as a precaution.

His style, as esthetic as it is aggressive, demands that sometimes Alcaraz needs to know when to take his foot off accelerator and learn to read situations better, in perspective, both in competition and on a daily basis. This is what he is currently doing, getting to know himself and his surroundings better. “Along with a couple of others, he is the player who has played least throughout the year. It’s difficult to play less. If you’re very good, you’ll play many more matches for a long time. You have to realise that and be professional about it, know what your job is and accept it,” Ferrero concluded, the preseason already on his mind. “For me, it’s a very good season. I think he has again taken a small step to grow his game, and in his maturity, but he’s still 20 and has to continue with the process of improving.”

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