Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Surface mastery: How Alcaraz won Grand Slams on hard, grass and clay courts

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Becoming the youngest man to win a Grand Slam title on all three surfaces is a testament to two qualities that separate Carlos Alcaraz from the rest: his variety and his dedication.

The feat would be impossible without them and it’s still an achievement so tough that it has eluded some of the game’s greats. Winning a major on clay, hard and grass is something Pete Sampras, John McEnroe (both no clay) and Ivan Lendl (not on grass) couldn’t muster; it’s a landmark that is for now beyond the dominant world women’s No 1 Iga Swiatek and also eluded otherwise all-conquering champions such as Venus Williams and Justine Henin.

Alcaraz has not just done it, but he’s done it at a younger age, 21, than any man previously — beating fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal’s previous record by 19 months. The other players to have achieved the milestone, which has only been possible since the U.S. Open switched to hard courts (after close to a century on grass and a far briefer run on clay) in 1978, are Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander (whose grass-court major was at the Australian Open, before it changed from grass to hard in the late 1980s), Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, and Serena Williams have all done it too.

To understand how Alcaraz pulled this off, we have to go back a lot further than the three majors he has won: the 2022 U.S. Open, Wimbledon a year later, and now the French Open, thanks to a five-set win over Alexander Zverev in a dramatic final on Sunday.


‘Joy in the suffering’: How Carlos Alcaraz won the French Open

Growing up in Murcia, in southern Spain, Alcaraz was first coached by his father. Also called Carlos, he quickly realised his son was a fast learner, with a voracious appetite for taking on new information.

So he made sure to give the youngster the chance to learn every shot in the book. Among them is the drop shot, which has always been one of Alcaraz junior’s favourites but has transcended preference to become one of the world No 2’s most effective weapons.

In Sunday’s final at Roland Garros, Alcaraz continually went to the shot — considered a luxury by some — in the tightest moments, including when he was serving for the match, just as he had done in the same scenario at Wimbledon last year against Djokovic. It was a marked contrast to Zverev. The drop shot is a particularly useful tactical option on clay, but when the German tried to throw it into his game, he looked awkward and uncomfortable. In the semi-final against Jannik Sinner, Alcaraz used its oppositional cousin, the lob, to similarly devastating effect.

(Mateo Villalba/Getty Images)

That variety in Alcaraz’s game is what separates him from players such as Zverev, who until the Spaniard’s arrival were considered the future of the sport. Alcaraz now possesses pretty much every shot in the tennis manual — and many more besides — which has given him an excellent platform to prosper irrespective of the surface. Put him on a slow clay court and he can generate pace and keep his opponents guessing with drop shots; quicken things up on a hard court, and he’ll zip groundstrokes from the baseline all day; take him out of his original comfort zone onto natural grass and his astonishing net game emerges.

Alcaraz learned the game on clay, but as soon as he was able, he recognised that he needed to adapt to the other surfaces, too.

“Well, honestly, I grew up playing on clay courts, but most tournaments on the tour are on hard courts,” he said on Sunday when asked by The Athletic why he has been able to translate his way of playing across the different surfaces when so few players can.

“I had to practice more on hard courts, doing the pre-season on hard courts. So I started to feel more comfortable moving, hitting my shots there.”

Then there was a slight pause and he added with telling matter-of-factness: “But I think my game suits every surface very well — because I practise it.”

This is key, because while Alcaraz is a flashy shotmaker with prodigious talent, his relentless dedication to improving his shots so that he has a bigger arsenal than his opponents is fundamental to his progress: “With drop shots, my volley, I wanted to develop my style of being aggressive all the time. You know, of course, practising the defence, but my main goal is being aggressive as much as I can.”

He believes this aggressiveness explains how he has been able to translate his game, originally built on clay, to hard, and then to grass, which is the quickest of the three surfaces and one that rewards a front-footed approach.

Growing up, Alcaraz knew that having an all-court game was the only way he could become a modern great. Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray had shown that it was now possible to be effective on all three surfaces and Alcaraz studied them from his home in Murcia and then at the academy where he trained, an hour’s drive away in Villena.

“I always wanted to be one of the best players in the world,” he said on Friday. “If I want to be one of the best players in the world, I have to be a good player on every surface, like Roger did, Novak, Rafa, Murray. The best players in the world had success on every surface.”

It’s worth remembering how easily Alcaraz could have focused, first and foremost, on establishing himself as a clay-court player.

On the men’s side, the most successful Spanish players of modern times have tended to only really have Grand Slam success on the red dirt at the French Open. Nadal was the exception, who shattered this mould, but before him, five of the six Spanish men to win a Grand Slam in the era did so at Roland Garros and nowhere else (one of whom is now Alcaraz’s coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero). The sixth, Manuel Orantes, also only won on one surface — a sole U.S. Open in 1975, when it was played on clay.

Ferrero after winning the 2003 French Open (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Even Nadal won four French Opens before he won a major on another surface — Wimbledon in 2008.

Transferring a predominantly clay-court background to other surfaces is not easy and requires a huge amount of dedication. In Nadal’s case, this involved travelling from Paris to Queen’s in London the day after winning the 2010 French Open to practise on the grass ahead of Wimbledon (back then there was no week-long break as there is now between Roland Garros and Queen’s).

And when it started to pour in the UK’s capital, Nadal said, no matter, let’s find somewhere to play in the rain. He ended up winning Wimbledon for a second time a few weeks later (he also did the French Open-Wimbledon double after playing at Queen’s straight after Paris in 2008).

Nadal also adapted his game to the other surfaces, improving his serve and backhand, knowing that on quicker surfaces than clay, he couldn’t constantly run around it and hit topspin forehands in quite the same way. More recently, Djokovic adapted his game for clay en route to winning three French Opens, while in the early 1990s, Lendl twice skipped the French Open, where he was a three-time champion, to help his chances at Wimbledon — to no avail.

For Alcaraz, the adaptation included practising more on hard courts, at his insistence, when he was 17 and last year watching videos of Federer and Murray playing on grass to try to understand what it was they were doing to tweak their games from other surfaces.

(Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Alcaraz’s determination to master hard courts paid off quickly. When still only 18, he reached the semi-finals at Indian Wells in March 2022 and then won the Miami title a month later. After which, his coach Ferrero said: “We are not sure (about which surface will be his best). We talk sometimes about this and he says to me that he’s not sure now, because we start practising on hard courts, like, a year ago, so he didn’t compete at all on hard courts (previously).

“But his game, his kind of game to go forward many times, to go to the net and to play aggressive all the time, I was completely sure his game could adapt to these kind of courts, and even for grass. So I think that when he’s 100 per cent trained, maybe he can give a little bit more on clay. But let’s keep the door open that maybe he’s going to be better on hard courts in the future.”

Alcaraz went on to win the U.S. Open later that year and he has since won Indian Wells, both last year and again this March. At that California event, the slow hard courts feel tailor-made for his aggressive baseline game and his ability to generate pace better than pretty much anyone on the tour. Likewise the faster clay courts in Madrid, where he won the title in 2022 and 2023.

With the sun out at Roland Garros in the second week this year and conditions that little bit quicker, Alcaraz was similarly devastating in winning his first Roland Garros title.

As Alcaraz explained, his upbringing was on clay and he made sure he was playing and training on hard courts as soon as he could.

Grass in many ways felt like the final frontier, even though he ended up winning Wimbledon before becoming French Open champion.

But last year’s success at the All England Club was a big surprise in lots of ways. Going into the 2023 grass-court season, Alcaraz was coming off the back of a bruising French Open defeat to Djokovic and had played just two tournaments and six matches on the surface previously — holding a narrow 4-2 win/loss record.

Two tournaments later, he had picked up the Queen’s-Wimbledon double and pushed that win/loss record to 16-2.

In his previous couple of years playing on grass, Alcaraz had only played at Wimbledon, but he went to Queen’s last June determined to learn how to play on the surface.

Movement was one of the big things he had to adjust to and he initially looked uncomfortable — almost losing in the first round. He also said that he didn’t know how to play an effective backhand slice — such a useful shot for grass, because of the way the ball then stays low on the surface and forces opponents to hit it up.

(Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Spanish players have typically had an uneasy relationship with grass and under previous seeding systems were often given, fairly or unfairly, worse seedings than their world rankings because of their poor performance on it. In 2000, three Spanish players, Alex Corretja, Albert Costa and Ferrero, who were ranked in the top 20, all boycotted Wimbledon in frustration at this policy. None ever got beyond the quarter-finals there; Corretja and Costa never made it into the second week.

Alcaraz has a much better all-court game than they did, however, and nowadays conditions at most grass-court tournaments, especially Wimbledon, are a lot slower than what they were in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Spanish players were routinely knocked out early.

He quickly found his feet at Queen’s last year, hitting a 101mph (162kph) forehand in the semi-final against Sebastian Korda, before beating Alex de Minaur in the final. De Minaur afterwards complimented Alcaraz for his backhand slice — a shot that, just as he’d vowed to, he had developed over the course of the week.

Alcaraz also worked extremely hard to improve his movement on grass. As well as watching videos of Federer and Murray, after his quick second-round win over Jiri Lehecka, he went to one of the club’s outside courts to put in an extra 45 minutes of practice.

“You have to be more focused on the footwork here,” Alcaraz said after that win. “Moving on grass is the key to everything on grass. I can’t slide as I do on clay or on a hard court.”

Improving the serve, such a key shot on grass, was another priority — and Alcaraz clocked one at 137mph in the final. “It’s something that I work on a lot during the past months and obviously coming to the grass is something that I work on more than probably other shots.”

The serve proved key in fending off Djokovic in the Wimbledon final a few weeks later, too — a title that, unlike any other, showed how much of a dedicated and quick learner Alcaraz is. Scarily for Alcaraz’s rivals, it is still a part of his game that can improve, and improve a lot: his ability to hit spots has gotten better, but he still has plenty of runway.

(Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

During his career as a whole, Alcaraz has won 75 per cent of first-serve points on his serve on grass, compared to 69 on clay and 72 on hard. He’s also been a lot better at saving break points on the surface —71 per cent compared to 61 per cent on clay and 64 per cent on hard. Part of this is down to serves generally being more effective on grass (the percentage of service games won shows a similar discrepancy) and it’s balanced out by better returning numbers for Alcaraz (and most players) on clay and hard compared to grass.

What’s impressive is the consistency in Alcaraz’s overall effectiveness on all three surfaces: with total points won tallies of 54 per cent on clay and 53 per cent on both grass and hard.

After winning the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, the only surface that Alcaraz hadn’t conquered, at Grand Slam level anyway, was clay, which would have felt counter-intuitive given his background.

The main barrier here was physical, with clay being the most demanding of the three surfaces and Alcaraz suffering from various injuries in the early part of his career.

Alcaraz accepted last week that his defeat to Djokovic a year ago was because his opponent had the necessary physicality for clay, which he did not then possess.

“Last year I couldn’t finish the match at my 100 per cent because, after just two sets, I was down on intensity,” Alcaraz said. “For him, it was normal.”

Twelve months on, Alcaraz showed that he had developed the necessary physicality to prosper at Roland Garros. He won both his semi-final and the final in five sets, becoming the first player to do so at the French since Rod Laver in 1962.

It took his win-loss record in five-set matches to 11-1, remarkable for anyone — let alone a 21-year-old getting used to the format.

The beaten Zverev said: “We’re both physically strong, but he’s a beast. He’s an animal, for sure. The intensity he plays tennis at is different to other people. Physically, he’s fantastic.”

As for how his playing style enabled Alcaraz to be so good on clay, as well as the other surfaces, Zverev added: “He can do so many different things. I think he changed his tactic a lot in the fifth set, started to play a lot higher, a lot deeper, for me to not create as much power.”

Against Zverev, Alcaraz showcased his variety not just with the drop shot, but with loopy topspin backhands the German struggled to deal with.

Before that match, Alcaraz said reaching a Grand Slam final on all three surfaces “obviously means that I’m playing good tennis on every surface and that is something that I really wanted to do when I started in the tour.”

He then added: “So it’s a great feeling, but right now, I don’t want to think about it.”

With the French Open over, Alcaraz can now reflect on how his dedication to being an all-court player has paid off. It puts him in the position of potentially winning the career Grand Slam at January’s Australian Open, when he will still be 21 — three years younger than the youngest ever man to do it, Rafael Nadal.

That would be another truly remarkable achievement for a player who is racking them up already.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sean Reilly)

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