PARIS — When future No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero was 19, he came to Roland Garros for the 1999 Roland-Garros qualifying tournament and lost in the first round.
His student, Carlos Alcaraz, has a more accelerated schedule. At 19, Alcaraz arrived in Paris as the No. 6 seed in the main draw and one of the big favourites.
With his style of action, Alcaraz, the emotional Spanish teenager, plays as if plugged into a renewable energy source and has already won four titles this season. He beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back on red clay in edgy duels in Madrid that seemed to pay tribute as much to Alcaraz’s appetite for combat as to his incandescent talent.
Friday, two days before the start of the French Open, a photo of Alcaraz, roaring, right fist closed, occupied almost all of the front page of L’Équipe, the number one French sports publication.
The word got out rightly. Now it’s time to find out if Alcaraz, who are in the top half of a top men’s draw, can handle the timing and grind of best-of-five-set matches in just their sixth Grand Slam tournament.
“If everything stays normal and there’s no injury, I think he’s absolutely ready for a best-of-five,” Ferrero said in an interview this week. He added: “His character on the pitch is so great. He loves going for the big points and the big moments and he’s one of the few guys you can see who is like that.
Since the Big Three – Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer – took collective command of men’s football in the late 2000s, this is the first time a player from the next generation has taken part in a major men’s tournament with this level of buzz and momentum.
“It seems to me that he doesn’t feel the pressure, but let’s see when the time comes,” Ferrero said. “I have experience with that. I talk to him a lot. I think his commitment to training and competing is the same as ever. So, let’s see where the limit is for him. And let’s see if he has no limits.
Ferrero, 42, who won the 2003 French Open and was ranked No. 1 the same year, knows more than anyone about scaling the heights of tennis. He has been training Alcaraz since 2018 from his academy in Villena, Spain, in the austere countryside near Alicante, long with dust and hilltop castles and short of modern-age distractions.
When not on tour, Alcaraz, from El Palmar, a suburb of Murcia, boards the academy on weekdays before driving an hour to spend the weekend with his family.
“Here we are really quiet,” or calm, Alcaraz said in a recent interview with Villena. “Here, it’s tennis, tennis and more tennis. The town is five minutes away by car, but in reality it is further than that.
Ferrero has been well aware of Alcaraz’s potential since he first saw him in a low-level professional tournament in Murcia when he was 14 years old. Ferrero took a thoughtful and caring approach to developing Alcaraz’s game. They are clearly close, which showed at the Miami Open in March when Ferrero surprised Alcaraz before the final after traveling from Spain after his father’s funeral.
In training, the focus is on emphasizing Alcaraz’s varied game: he spends a lot of time at the net and in transition, not just at the baseline. In terms of hours on court, the focus is on quality over quantity, which preserves Alcaraz’s body in the long run while prioritizing intensity.
“The way you train will affect the way you play,” Alcaraz said. “If you don’t train every ball with that intensity and that seriousness, how will you know how to do it in a game?”
Ferrero tries to learn from his own experience and mistakes. He climbed to the top but peaked early at 23, before falling back due to injuries and the rise of Federer and Nadal. After winning the French Open in 2003, he never made it past the third round there before retiring in 2012.
Ferrero sometimes disregarded cues from his body and overplayed, which factored into Alcaraz’s decision to pull out of the Italian Open earlier this month after winning back-to-back tournaments on clay in Barcelona and Madrid. The aim was to give Alcaraz time to recover from the sprained right ankle and blister on his foot that surfaced in Madrid but also to give him a break from the inevitable turmoil and questions of Roland-Garros before Paris.
“Let’s just say he wanted to go to Rome, but let’s also say he was thinking about the future, what was best for him to get to Roland Garros 100%,” Ferrero said.
After winning in Madrid, Alcaraz took three days off and returned home to El Palmar, where he beamed and lifts the Madrid trophy on the balcony of his family’s apartment with his parents behind him and a large crowd of fans gathered below, including a group of drummers.
One can only imagine the din of El Palmar if Alcaraz won in Paris.
Ferrero said he had unusually long training sessions in Villena – up to three hours – to prepare for best-of-five-set matches. On Tuesday, Alcaraz had one of his regular academy sessions with a Spanish performance psychologist, Isabel Balaguer.
“A lot of players get lost trying to deal with everything, and I think psychologists can help a lot to keep them on track,” Ferrero said. “It helps to establish good routines on and off the pitch. Carlos doesn’t do much visualization. They work in another way, talking about the things that happened to him, how to deal with everything, how to stay calm and how to keep his feet on the ground.”
It could be almost as difficult as surviving Djokovic from the baseline, but Alcaraz stressed that great success doesn’t have to lead to a big header.
“Tennis is a team sport all the time, except when you’re on the court,” he said.
This moment in Paris conjures up memories of Nadal, Spain’s ultimate wonderkid, who arrived at Roland Garros on a hot streak in 2005 as the No. 4 seed and won his first Grand Slam title at 19. Nadal’s handiwork was superior at this early stage. . He helped Spain win the Davis Cup in 2004 and won five clay-court tournaments in 2005 before arriving in Paris. It was Nadal’s first French Open, but only because he missed the tournament in 2003 and 2004 due to injuries.
Alcaraz was only 2 years old at the time and was yet to pound the balls obsessively in El Palmar against the batting wall of his family’s sports club. But Alcaraz remembers the 2013 French Open semi-final, when Djokovic broke serve on Nadal in the fifth set to lose his advantage and the match after losing a point for touching the net after tapping on a seemingly routine winner.
“I’ve watched a lot of tennis, but this is my first really clear memory of a match,” Alcaraz said.
Nine years later, he appears to be the biggest threat to Nadal and Djokovic at Roland Garros, where all three are in the top half of the table. Alcaraz is clearly at home on hard courts – he won the Miami Open this year – but grew up training almost exclusively on clay.
He has already played at Roland-Garros: he lost in the third round last year against Jan-Lennard Struff, a German veteran. But Alcaraz’s game, strength and confidence have grown tremendously since then.
“I see Carlos as a mix of the Big Three,” said Craig O’Shannessy, an Australian tennis analyst who was part of Struff’s team last year. “You have the mentality and tenacity of Nadal and the exquisite timing and willingness to come to the net from Federer. And then you have the aggressive basic game like Djokovic: the power and flexibility to hit hard on both sides from the rear area.
For now, Alcaraz says his aim is to win one of three remaining Grand Slams in 2022. He was beaten in the third round of this year’s Australian Open in a tiebreaker at the fifth set by Matteo Berrettini, double fault on match point.
“I think it was the right time to lose a game,” Ferrero said. “Maybe he could have won and gone to the semi-finals like Berrettini, but maybe it wouldn’t have been useful as a loss.”
Four months later, after four titles, coach and student seem less inclined to see the bright side of defeat. Ferrero has already come all the way to Paris, and as Alcaraz spoke at the Villena academy, he did so to a room full of Ferrero trophies, including the smaller Coupe des Mousquetaires model on display. to the men’s champion at Roland Garros.
“They should have given him the big one,” Alcaraz said with a chuckle. “I was a bit young to remember some of them, but this place is full of important memories and trophies for Juan Carlos. It’s obviously inspirational. I hope one day I can match or exceed it.