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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Before Carlos Alcaraz was great, he was good enough to be lucky

Success has many fathers. In Alcaraz’s case, he was born to an actual tennis-playing father, and then the local candy company swooped in to help.

By Matthew Futterman

Carlos Alcaraz is so good, so young, and wins so often that his success has seemed predetermined.

Of course, someone that fast, with hands as soft as an artisan’s and a physique that lands him right in the not-too-tall and not-too-short Goldilocks zone of the modern tennis greats, would become the youngest world No. 1 during the 50-year history of the ATP rankings. He has good genes, too. His father was a nationally ranked professional in Spain as a teenager.

So this was preordained for Alcaraz, a 20-year-old champion who comes to Paris this week as the prohibitive favorite to win the French Open, wasn’t it?

Maybe not.

As happens so often in sports, and especially in tennis, where early exposure and training are essential, there was an element of luck that helped create the sport’s heir apparent to the troika of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic that has ruled the men’s game for the better part of the past two decades.

That luck ultimately took the form of a local candy company’s logo, which adorned the shirts Alcaraz wore during his matches from the time he was 10 years old. It was all thanks to happenstance encounters with Alfonso López Rueda, the tennis-playing president of Postres Reina, a Spanish dessert and candy concern known for its puddings and yogurts. López Rueda’s interest in Alcaraz and the support that allowed him to travel Europe and begin competing against older boys in unfamiliar settings may be an explanation for the way Alcaraz, from the beginning of his short career, has almost always displayed a kind of joyous serenity, even as the stage grew bigger and the spotlight hotter.

“Some personalities are just adept at that, some have to learn,” said Paul Annacone, who has coached Federer and Pete Sampras, among others. “He just really seems to enjoy the environment — win, lose, whatever — seems to embrace it.”

The greatest fortune an aspiring tennis player can have, it seems, is to have been born to parents who played the game at the highest level. The pro ranks, especially on the men’s side, are lousy with nepo babies. Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sebastian Korda, Taylor Fritz and Ben Shelton are all the offspring of former professionals. All of them had a racket in their hands at an early age and nearly unlimited access to someone who knew best what to do with it.

For everyone else, some kismet is key.

The skills professional tennis requires are specialized, and the long and expensive process of honing them has to start at a young age. But the player development system in most countries is fractured and happenstance at best, with any school-based programs being mostly limited. Either a family consciously decides to expose a young child to tennis, or the child does not play, at least not seriously.

So it’s hardly a surprise that so many of the creation stories in professional tennis seem to involve a sliding-doors moment.

Frances Tiafoe probably does not end up as a Grand Slam semifinalist if his father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, becomes a maintenance man in an office park instead of at a local tennis club.

Djokovic had the good fortune of meeting Jelena Gencic, one of the top coaches in Serbia, when he was 6 years old and she was giving a tennis clinic on the courts near his parents’ restaurant in Kopaonik, in the Serbian mountains near Montenegro.

Arthur Ashe was traveling in Cameroon in 1971 when he spotted an 11-year-old schoolboy with raw talent to burn. He put in a call to his friend Philippe Chatrier at France’s tennis federation and told him he best come have a look. That boy was Yannick Noah, the last Frenchman to win the French Open.

As with the others, Alcaraz’s preternatural gifts and skills played the biggest role in his good fortune. When he got the chance to impress, he did, but first luck had to deliver an opportunity.

The story of that opportunity begins with Alcaraz’s grandfather’s decision decades ago to develop tennis courts and a swimming pool at a hunting club in El Palmar, a suburb of the city of Murcia. It would have been cheaper to put in all hard courts, but the Spanish love the red clay. So Grandpa Alcaraz (another Carlos) made sure to include those courts with the development.

Now flash forward to a dozen years ago. López Rueda is the tennis-mad CEO of Postres Reina, which is based in Caravaca de la Cruz. But López Rueda doesn’t just like tennis; he likes to play tennis on red clay. He lives in the same region as the Alcaraz clan, and the best and most accessible clay courts for him are at a club in El Palmar, so he plays there, said Jose Lag, a longtime Postres Reina executive and an Alcaraz family friend, who spoke on behalf of his boss, López Rueda.

At the club he became friendly with Alcaraz’s father and played as the doubles partner of his uncle. Also, López Rueda’s son, who is three years older than Alcaraz, had the same coach, Kiko Navarro, who could not stop raving about the talents of Carlito. One day López Rueda agreed to watch the boy play, and it was unlike anything he had ever seen. Carlito had everything, but his family’s resources were limited. His father was a tennis coach and administrator at the club, and his mother was busy raising the boy and his younger siblings.

López Rueda agreed to lend the family 2,000 euros to travel to a tournament, but then he started to think bigger and decided to get his company involved in supporting this local boy who was already capable of beating taller, stronger and older competition.

Postres Reina had long supported local basketball and soccer teams, but tennis was López Rueda’s favorite sport and the company had never sponsored an individual athlete. Alcaraz became the first, wearing the company logo on his shirts.

The company’s support, which lasted through Alcaraz’s early teenage years, allowed him to continue to access to the best coaching in his region and to travel throughout Europe to play in the most competitive tournaments.

“It was done not as a marketing interest,” Lag said. “It was only to help him. We never thought he would be No. 1.”

Seeing Alcaraz’s success, IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate, signed him at age 13, providing even more access, notably to his current coach, former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.

There is a fair chance that Alcaraz would have eventually become a top player had López Rueda never seen him. Spain’s tennis federation, which has one of the world’s best talent development pipelines, probably would have caught wind of him before too long.

Max Eisenbud, the director of tennis at IMG, said in any tennis success story the most important ingredient is a solid family willing to take a long-term view toward a child’s success.

“That is the secret recipe,” Eisenbud said during a recent interview, but he acknowledged that financial assistance for a family that needs it can certainly help.

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