Carlos Alcaraz survives French Open test, but how far will his game take him?

Carlos Alcaraz survives French Open test, but how far will his game take him? thumbnail

PARIS — Four days into French Open, here’s some early thoughts and answers.

Is Carlos Alcaraz the real deal or just a phony?

Jon,

I’ll cut to the chase. Carlos Alcaraz is amazing! I really hope so. But it seems like for 100 years we are being sold a player who is good, but not great. Remember Baby Fed? (Remember Baby Fed?)

Thanks,
Freddy in Tennessee

Carlos Alcaraz

Alcaraz is now 30-3 this year in match play.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played his final match Tuesday afternoon on the big court. He played a gamely match. At age 37, his body just gave out and he lost in straight sets against Casper Ruud. Afterward, there was a poignant retirement ceremony–the French know how to do adieu. The commentary was mostly “A wonderful player who had to have a career coincident with the Big Three”, a capstone for many other players to come.

Which brings us to Alcaraz. He is very good. He is really good. Like, really good. You don’t go 30-3 so far in 2022 and win the Miami Open and beat Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev in succession to win Madrid and … you get the point … without being a smoldering talent.

Aside from the stats, metrics, and RPMs, Alcaraz also passes naked-eye testing. You can see his difference when you watch him play. His shot selection and shotmaking skills. His shot weight. His variety. His fearlessness. It is his fearlessness. Alcaraz didn’t have his best stuff against inspired veteran Albert Ramos-Vinolas, but he scrapped and clawed his way back after facing a match point in the fourth set to win in five. In the third round, he will face American Seb Korda (more to him soon).

Tennis can be described as binary. There are wins and losses but not all wins. On Wednesday, Alcaraz played four hours and 34 minutes and had more than 350 points. This might be more significant than his victory over an overmatched opponent, which is perverse. Timing is also a benefit for

Carlito. He is, of course, just 19. Djokovic is 35. Nadal turns 36 next week. Federer is 40. Even if some fraction of the Big Three retain their dominance for the next three years, Alcaraz will be all of 22. This is a tennis baby.

Do you think Alcaraz will win the event? Not quite. Do I believe he could? Sure. Do I believe a combination talent and timing will make him a great player? Absolutely.

A young American on the rise

Jon,

Of all the young Americans, I keep hearing about Sebastian Korda. Can you please explain, and can you talk me into supporting him?

Stavros G.

I would never talk a fan out of rooting for a player they find appealing. Korda is undeniably a talented player in ascent. (As I write this Seb Korda is the last player who beat Carlos Alcaraz. Seb is a big player, can generate a lot of power, and can dictate play. However, like his father, Seb is also athletic and can play defense. We spoke on Tennis Channel this week-plug, plug–about areas for improvement. I would say it’s less about ball-striking than closing matches, as he’s been on the losing side of tight matches:

  • 2021 Wimbledon: He lost 12-10 in the fifth set against Karen Khachanov in the round of 16.
  • 2021 ATP 500 in Washington, D.C.: A 6-7, 6-7 defeat against Jannik Sinner in the round of 16.
  • 2022 Indian Wells: Losing to Nadal, 7-6 in a decisive third set, in the second round.

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The 21-year-old Korda is progressing nicely. His rise will be accelerated by winning some close matches.

The case for 32 seeds

Jon,

I can’t believe you are in favor of 32 seeds. This sport is not for everyone! Why should the top players be protected?

Camille Blythe

I am in favor of 32 seeds, but it’s more about the 17-32 players than protecting the top seeds. This is a very brutal and expensive sport. Give the 17-32 players the reward (and payday) of not having to face a higher-ranked opponent until the third round. There are many opportunities for upsets. But with 32 seeds, the best players get some protection, the tournaments get some hedge against stars departing early and the 33-128 players can still make their mark.

Why does French Open begin on a Sunday?

Jon,

I turned on the television Sunday and there you were. It was great, but I am curious why the French Open begins on Sunday. How long has this been going on?

Joan, Indy

I like your use of “fine.” The French Open has started on Sunday for 20 years now, but it began as a “soft open,” as they say in restauranting. One story I heard was about a player who was asked if he wanted a spot on the “Sunday family sessions.” He then realized that it wasn’t a glorified Kids Day but a formal match in casual surroundings. “First Sunday” has now become a legitimate session. Alcaraz and Ons Jabeurwere among those who were active this Sunday. My question: Why don’t all majors do this? The four tentpoles are tentpoles. Why not wrap up as many weekends as you can?

(*No Jabeur Questions, but think this: You are second in the oddsmakers’ poll. This has been a great season. You are fluent in French and have French-speaking friends. This is the event nearest to you. And then … you are out of the tournament by lunchtime Sunday, 14 days from the final you envisioned playing in. Even for the most skilled and experienced players, this is a brutal sport. I find this makes the sport more compelling than it is less. However, too many people overlook the mental rigors required to win these tournaments. )

No easy paths around Russian player ban

Fernando speaks truth to tennis not politics. However, tournament directors and tennis governing bodies should not be involved in politics. Doing the “right thing” can lead to inequalities, hurt innocent tennis players, distract from the sport, and is just plain unfair.

The one and only Fernando

This letter seems to allude to Wimbledon’s ban of Russian players, the ATP and WTA tours’ response to the war in Ukraine. This has been a hot topic. Here’s the problem. The British government placed the All England Lawn Tennis Club (and Wimbledon organizers) in an untenable position. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused of harboring “Londongrad” oligarchs and was rightly offended at Russia’s invasion. The last thing he and the government would like is for a Russian player to raise a trophy on Centre Court.

Wimbledon organizers, meanwhile, did not want a repeat of the Australia fiasco. Different issue, but the tournament organizers and the government were at odds, and chaos ensued. Wimbledon was faced with a dilemma: “Do we just follow policy?” Or do we assert moral authority and position it as a response to unjust war and an autocratic dictator? Wimbledon chose the latter.

Hey Jon,

Have a question for you: Do you think that the bosses at the LTA and AELTC will see how pointless and counterproductive their Russian/Belarussian players eligibility stance is, now that Wimbledon has effectively been rendered an exhibition? They claim their only desire is to deny Putin

Isn’t it ironic, given that Djokovic can’t defend points from last year, that they only managed [the] World No. 1 position to a Russian, that they have only managed to do so?

Kind regards,
Wen

I don’t buy this “exhibition” framing. It’s still Wimbledon. It’s still a major. Crassly, who still receives millions of dollar and will forever be remembered as a champion, is Crassly. Ask any average fan how many points the winner receives and they will not be able to answer. Exhibitions involve two people who are on opposite ends of the net to entertain. No matter who wins, the money doesn’t change. There are no next opponents. There is no draw. Seeding is not possible. It is absurd to think that the removal of ranking points will reduce competitiveness.

Your other point is a good one. No sport does irony like tennis. Wimbledon bans Russians to prevent glorifying Russians, and that decision will mean that a Russian will rise to No. 1? Very on-brand for this verkakte sports.

Why is it OK with ATP to ban unvaccinated players but not OK to ban Russian players? The knee-jerk response is that players have the option of vaccinating but not the choice of where they hail from. However, there is precedent of South African players being banned during Apartheid because of the sins of their country. Novak may be deprived of his chance to keep his #1 ranking by ATP, as Wimbledon (alongside AO where he was 9-1 in finals but was not allowed to play) is his stronghold. Given Novak’s history in PTPA and the strong influence Rafa has at ATP, it is not surprising. Although I know you will reject my argument as unworthy of merit as a Novak critic, I believe these ATP decisions are arbitrary.

Kashi

First, I am not a “Novak critic,” severe or otherwise. He is admirable in many ways. He acted recklessly during the pandemic. We should be able hold opposing/conflicting thoughts in our heads simultaneously.

Second I believe you have answered your own question. A player refused to be vaccinated. This is a lot different than a blanket ban on players coming from one country.

Jon,

Help me understand why players care so much about ranking points. Why wouldn’t they want this event? What about the prestige and prize money? What am I missing?

Clark T.

A few points here. 1) To give context, players and tours feel that majors have too much power. After Wimbledon unilaterally decided to ban players from one country, most players thought some response–“consequences,” Novak Djokovic called it–was in order. The boycott was not acceptable by players, so the best alternative was to remove ranking points. 2) Ranking points do matter. I was told this week that, on average, 430 ranking points separate the No. 20 and No. 30 players, so removing points at a major is hugely significant.

The unbalanced draw at Roland Garros

Question for your French Open mailbag, s’il vous plait. What tennis world should Novak & Rafa meet in a Grand Slam quarterfinal? Roland Garros, get on it! They must be on opposite sides.

Mon Dieu!
Dominic

When the French Open decided to follow the rankings and disregard subjectivity or even surface track records in seeding players, they left themselves vulnerable to this outcome. It is absurd that the three largest contenders (by far), are all in the same half. It is not “top heavy”. Thought exercise: Are seedings intended to reward past performance, or predict future outcomes?

Let him eat … cake?

Jon,

What’s the story about the cake they gave Novak Djokovic for his 1000th win in Italy? Is it the tournament director? It’s not possible to tell me that it’s a professionally-made cake. It could be a local school’s home economics class making it. I don’t mind making fun of it. But. Perhaps an intern or new assistant was given the task of preparing the cake. In a hilarious sitcom-esque moment, they dropped the gorgeous, artistic, and intricately designed cake just an hour before the match. So they rushed to the nearest supermarket and bought a sheet cake and some red icing and wrote 1000 themselves. “No one will ever notice…”

Thanks,
Dan B from Baltimore, MD

It was a sheet cake from Ralphs.

Take us out, Megan …

Wanted to submit this book recommendation for Mailbag consideration. It comes out May 31. It’s amazing. I was able to get a sneak peak. Essential Tennis is the first new tennis instruction book to come out in a long time. While classics such as Winning Unbelievably or The Inner Game of Tennis , are still very popular, a lot has happened. … For Milwaukee (or Chicago) readers, Ian is giving a rare clinic at McKinley Park on May 31, followed by a book signing at Boswell Book Company.

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