Matches where the proverbial torch gets passed from one player to another - one generation to another - are extremely rare. Roger Federer’s one and only meeting with Pete Sampras was possibly the most symbolic torch passing moment in tennis history. In 2001 Sampras was in the twilight of his career chasing an 8th Wimbledon Title. One of the many reasons this match is so symbolic is how Federer went on to surpass Sampras both in terms of Wimbledon’s won and Slam victories. Many pinpoint it as the match that shaped Federer’s career. Tennis has been deprived of these kind of moments for such a long time, mainly because the big three keep managing to win almost any match of significance.
One match that comes to mind for me where the stage felt set for one such moment was the 2019 French Open final. Dominic Thiem - nicknamed the ‘Prince Of Clay’ due to the expectation that he would win multiple French Open titles when Rafa declined. Theim won the second set to level the match against Rafa in the Roland Garros final only to be blown away 6-1 6-1 in the next two sets. Before Thiem could even start to believe that he could win the match was over. Following a two year break due to injury and a poor run of form since his comeback, the prince of clay may never get closer to becoming the king than he did in 2019.
Following his record 8th Wimbledon title (beating Sampras’ record 7) Federer offered some advice to the next generation when he told the media - “Almost every player I played here wouldn't serve and volley. It's frightening to me, to see this at this level. I look at the stats and go into whatever round it is and see that the guy I'm going to face is playing two per cent of serve and volley throughout the championship. I'm going, "OK, I know he's not going to serve and volley", which is great. A slugfest with Andy from the baseline or Rafa for that matter — good luck if you are No 50 in the world, it is not so simple to take them out.”
Fast forward to 2022 and in steps Carlos Alcaraz. Last night he became the youngest ever male world number one after defeating Casper Ruud to claim the US Open trophy. Whilst this is obviously the biggest moment of his career so far I feel his passing of the torch moment came earlier this year. At the Madrid Open back in May, Alcaraz defeated Nadal and Djokovic in back to back matches before demolishing Zverev in the final. It was the first time any player had ever beaten both Nadal and Djokovic in the same clay court tournament.
What was most interesting in those matches was how many different situations Alcaraz was winning points against two of the greatest players ever. In the two matches he hit a combined 88 winners compared to Nadal and Djokovic’s 34. He won 15/20 points using the drop shot and 24/26 net points including 12/13 on the serve and volley. It feels like we’ve gone from seeing the next generation of players struggle with various elements of their games to Alcaraz, who at 19 looks more rounded than the three greatest players ever.
It was the same story last night in New York. In the final against Ruud, Alcaraz won 34/45 net points, including 11/13 serve and volleys. In fact in the big moments it looked like Alcaraz was more comfortable at the net than the baseline.
Whenever I think about the evolution of technique one video comes to mind. A coach called Tim Mayotte, who could pass for Will Ferrell, is presenting at a tennis congress event in Arizona. His presentation is about how what we regard as modern technique has often been done before and that players/coaches cherry pick the best bits from previous eras.
In some ways I actually disagree with this video. The implication that Federer’s forehand and Nadal’s backhand are copies of Lendl and Connors is somewhat laughable. It ignores all of the genuinely new technical advances that those two players brought to the game. The extreme racket lag and fully extended arm at contact that Federer introduced on the forehand are practically trademarked. I also don’t remember anyone sliding like Novak on a hard court in the Bjorg/McEnroe era.
Even though I think the video either overlooks these changes or chooses to ignore them I do think the general point is good. Building on what was good from the previous generation is part of the natural evolution. For Alcaraz it just so happens that the previous generation was possibly the best ever with huge technical advances. From the way Alcaraz slides and hits his backhand like Novak, has taken the trademark aspects from Federer and Nadal’s forehands as well as having similar elements to Theim and Kyrgios’s modern forehand techniques when it comes to the take back. Alcaraz has cherry picked very well indeed.
Great players are usually slightly ahead of their time. Whether that’s better technique, like we discussed above, movement, or tactics. At just 19 years old, Alcaraz, is already having an influence on how tennis is being played by other professionals.
Regular readers of the blog may remember me writing about Nadal’s deep return position. It was one of the biggest tactical changes our sport had seen for a long time. Either the server was forced to serve and volley in an attempt to counter the position or they had to chance it in a 50/50 rally which completely negated advantage of serving. This forced a lot of players to serve and volley who weren’t particularly comfortable in doing so. No match stands out more than the 2019 US Open Final between Medvedev and Nadal where Medvedev, who isn’t particularly comfortable at the net, was serve and volleying consistently. It made for a pretty strange but entertaining match. Alcaraz has found his own solution to the problem.
By using his excellent kick serve and altering his serving position Alcaraz can find extreme angles on the serve. It’s a calculated manipulation of the geometry of the court which pushes his excellent kick serve to the next level. The idea most likely comes from his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, who as a player himself had a great kick serve. The idea is that by standing further wide he can achieve more angle isn’t particularly genius, a lot of club level players do similar with their slice serves, the clever part is how Alcaraz actually benefits from this starting position after the serve.
Alcaraz taking up a very unorthodox serving position for singles in order to get more angle on his serve.
For Kecmanovic to get it to the Alcaraz backhand his return has to go into the highlighted part of the court. This is also assuming that Alcaraz won’t run further around his backhand.
To hit a winner down the line is incredibly difficult due to how wide the returner is, this makes the target area too small to hit consistently. Not only that but Alcaraz has fantastic movement so most attempts to play a down the line shot will be covered by him. On top of this any attempt to play down the line gives Alcaraz more angle to work with into the open court. On top of this - Alcaraz has one of the best backhand down the lines on tour so almost no return is safe. Alcaraz also follows many of these serves into the net which makes it less appealing for players to increase the height on their returns to buy themselves time. It’s not absolute checkmate of course, this serve is dramatically more effective against players using the deeper return position. A more regular returning position reduces the angle gained by Alcaraz and offers counters. The problem is that Alcaraz hits a very good body serve, and hits it very frequently, which is a counter to taking the ball earlier.
Alcaraz hitting a very high percentage of body serves to Tsistipas in Miami.
Tsistipas’ serve placement from the same match gives context to how unusual it is for players to hit a high percentage of body serves.
Alcaraz’s second innovation is his use of the drop shot. It’s not unusual for clay court players to have good drop shots - the clay encourages heavy topspin on the ground strokes which creates space shorter in the court. What is unique about how Alcaraz plays his drop shots is the quantity and quality of them. He hits them so regularly but they’re disguised well enough that it’s still difficult for opponents. It leaves his opponents in an awkward limbo where they want to retreat further back to deal with the topspin and depth on his ground strokes but they can’t because they know the drop shot is coming.
When it comes to coaching you often see the players who aren’t afraid to miss and like to experiment with what they can do with the ball as the ones who play the best drop shots. It’s that child like nature that Alcaraz feels is part of his current identity. This was illustrated in a post match interview where he was asked why he prefers to be called Carlitos rather than Carlos to which he replied - “Carlitos everyone calls me that since I was a kid and I am still a kid so Carlitos!”
Whilst Carlos obviously has not invented either the drop shot or standing wider to serve, he has popularised both ideas and trail-blazed the way for other players on tour. Anyone who has watched tennis over the last few months will have seen his influence on top level tennis. Just as Nadal returns better from further back than anyone because it suits his game, Alcaraz has both one of the best kick serves and drop shots in the world. It’s very rare that an individual player has such an influence on the game, even rarer for someone so young. This combined with his great results this year and his talent which is obvious to everyone - Carlitos ‘The Kid’ Alcaraz looks to be the real deal.