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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev and the power of vulnerability

Carlos Alcaraz defeated Holger Rune on Wednesday in the quarterfinals. His next opponent is Daniil Medvedev, whom he beat earlier this year at Indian Wells.

By Matthew Futterman

Carlos Alcaraz is nearly always a killer on the court, suffocating opponents with relentless aggressiveness.

He did it once more on Wednesday, beating his childhood rival, Holger Rune of Denmark, in straight sets to land a spot in a Wimbledon semifinal for the first time. Alcaraz brims with confidence and never hesitates to answer when asked about his goal.

“To win the tournament,” he said more than a week ago.

So it always comes as a surprise when, sometimes in the next sentence, Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish star, reveals one of his insecurities. Perhaps it’s his lack of experience on grass courts, or his fear of Wimbledon’s hallowed Centre Court, or even the stress-induced panic that, combined with exhaustion, caused his entire body to cramp during the French Open semifinal last month against Novak Djokovic.

“I was really, really nervous,” he said of his emotions before his 7-6 (3), 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Rune.

So maybe it’s fitting then that his opponent Friday (10:30 a.m. ET, ESPN) will be Daniil Medvedev, another player who, although he is third in the world and has been ranked No. 1, has no problem seeing himself as the goof who has crashed the party at the top of elite tennis.

For a long while in his five-set quarterfinal against the American Chris Eubanks, the suddenly hot, sixth-year overnight sensation, things were not going well for Medvedev. At one moment, a ball kid bounced a ball over to him. He dropped it onto his foot, and the ball rolled away.

“Nice job,” he said to himself out loud, as he fetched it.

Such is the essence of Medvedev, who won the match.

“When I go on the court, I always try to be myself,” Medvedev, a 27-year-old Russian, said early in the tournament. “If you tell the truth, it’s easier.”

Tennis and sports psychology have come a long way. Not so long ago, the idea of admitting to nerves or weakness was seen as a surefire recipe for defeat. In recent years, sports psychologists and wiser veterans have been encouraging their clients and protégés to understand the value of embracing their frailties.

“So many of us, and especially athletes, wear this mask, like it’s a piece of armor,” said Ben Crowe, who spent years working with former world No. 1 Ash Barty, who retired last year at 25. “We think it makes us safe. But we need vulnerability.”

Billie Jean King, one of tennis’s greats and a trailblazer for equal rights, chimed in on the subject just before Wimbledon, discussing how concerned she had become over watching so many players struggle with their mental health because they try to achieve the impossible.

“Boys are taught they always have to act brave, and girls are taught they are supposed to be perfect,” King said at a ceremony earlier this month celebrating the 50th anniversary of the WTA Tour’s founding. “Well, boys can’t always be courageous, and no one can be perfect, so I think we all ought to stop trying.”

King does not have to worry about Alcaraz or Medvedev. Neither man has any problem talking about being scared or uncomfortable, or sharing whatever thoughts are running through his head, no matter the thousands of people watching in stadiums and the millions more watching on television.

And neither player is the worse off for wearing insecurities on his sleeve. Among men, Alcaraz and Medvedev are the only players younger than 29 to have won a Grand Slam singles title: a reflection of how dominant Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have been during the past decade, too.

Alcaraz has been wearing a bucket hat around the All England Club for much of the past two weeks, as if he is headed to an outdoor music festival with his buddies rather than playing in the world’s most important tennis tournament.

“Lucky hat,” Alcaraz said Wednesday night, as he walked into his postmatch news conference.

He then proceeded to talk about the nerves he was experiencing during the tight first set with Rune on Centre Court, the stage that he said last week rattles him every time he walks onto it — especially so on Wednesday.

“I couldn’t control it at all,” he said of the tension with which he played on a day when Queen Camilla watched from the Royal Box.

He played tight for 65 minutes, the entirety of the first set. But when he clinched it with a backhand return winner down the line, he finally let it all out, he said, with two, full-body roars and two screams of “Vamos.”

Only then, he said, did he start to enjoy the moment, and to smile, which is part of his secret sauce.

“Smiling for me, as I said a few times, is the key of everything,” he said.

Medvedev doesn’t smile much on the court, and for weeks now Medvedev has told everyone not to expect very much of him at this tournament. He hasn’t done very well at Wimbledon in the past. Until this year, he never exceeded the fourth round. He doesn’t have much of a liking for grass-court tennis, preferring the true, predictable bounces produced by hard courts.

And there he was Wednesday afternoon on the No. 1 court against Eubanks, who was blasting serves and following them up with drop volleys that Medvedev would barely run for. As Eubanks surged to a two-sets-to-one lead, Medvedev was struggling to focus, he said, and could not understand what was happening to him.

The crowd was firmly in the corner of Eubanks — a massive underdog whom the British fans backed, even though he eliminated their top-ranked player, Cameron Norrie, last week. At one point, Medvedev rolled a perfect running backhand winner past Eubanks and put his finger to his ear, asking for some cheers. When they weren’t loud enough, Medvedev shook his hands in disgust.

With the score so lopsided, he thought back to five years ago, long before he broke through as one of the most promising players of his generation. He was not having all that much success then, and he had yet to achieve a lot of the things he never thought would be possible: multiple Grand Slam finals, a U.S. Open title in 2021, some stints as the world No. 1.

“That’s when I was like, ‘OK, I need to try to turn this match around and to do like I did many times to win these tough, tough battles at the Grand Slam,’” he said.

And that’s just what he did, earning a spot in the semifinals against Alcaraz. Still, Medvedev was not ready to say he was at all comfortable on grass.

May the most vulnerable man win.

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