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Carlos Alcaraz recently beat Nadal and Djokovic on clay. Could this French Open be his?

Carlos Alcaraz beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on red clay in the Madrid Open, then won the final.

By Christopher Clarey

When future No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero was 19, he came to Roland Garros for the 1999 French Open qualifying tournament and lost in the first round.

His pupil, Carlos Alcaraz, is on a more accelerated timetable. At 19, Alcaraz has arrived in Paris as the No. 6 seed in the main draw and one of the clear favorites.

With his all-action style, Alcaraz, the emotive Spanish teenager, plays as if plugged into some renewable source of energy and already has won four titles this season. He defeated Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back on red clay in nerve-jangling duels in Madrid that seemed as much a tribute to Alcaraz’s appetite for combat as to his incandescent talent.

On Friday, two days before the start of the French Open, a photo of Alcaraz, roaring with his right fist clenched, occupied nearly all the space on the front page of L’Équipe, the leading French sports publication.

The word is justifiably out. Now it is time to learn whether Alcaraz, who is in the top half of a top-heavy men’s draw, can manage the moment and the grind of best-of-five-set matches in just his sixth Grand Slam tournament.

“If everything stays normal, and there is no injury, I think he is absolutely ready for best of five,” Ferrero said in an interview last week. “His character on the court is so big. He loves to go for the big points and for the big moment and is one of the few guys that you can see who is like this.”

Since the Big Three — Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer — took collective command of the men’s game in the late 2000s, this is the first time that a next-generation player has come into a major men’s tournament with this level of buzz and momentum.

“It seems to me he’s not feeling 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 practice and compete 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 most about scaling tennis summits. He has coached Alcaraz since 2018 out of his academy in Villena, Spain, in the stark countryside near Alicante that is long on dust and hilltop castles and short on modern-age distractions.

When he is not traveling on tour, Alcaraz, who is from El Palmar, a suburb of Murcia, boards at the academy on weekdays before making the hourlong drive to spend weekends with his family.

“Here we are really tranquilo,” or calm, Alcaraz said in a recent interview in Villena. “Here it’s tennis, tennis and more tennis. The town is five minutes away by car, but in reality it’s farther than that.”

After winning in Madrid, Alcaraz took three days off and returned home to El Palmar, where he beamed and brandished 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 in El Palmar if Alcaraz were to prevail in Paris.

This moment in Paris stirs memories of Nadal, the ultimate Spanish prodigy, who arrived at Roland Garros on a roll in 2005 as the No. 4 seed and won his first Grand Slam title at 19. Nadal’s body of work was superior at that early stage. He had helped Spain win the Davis Cup in 2004 and won five tournaments on clay in 2005 before arriving in Paris. That was Nadal’s first French Open but only because he missed the tournament in 2003 and 2004 with injuries.

Alcaraz was only 2 years old at that point and not yet pounding balls obsessively in El Palmar against the hitting wall at his family’s sports club. But Alcaraz does remember the 2013 French Open semifinal, when Djokovic was up a break of serve on Nadal in the fifth set only to lose his edge and the match after dropping a point for touching the net after tapping a seemingly routine overhead winner.

“I watched plenty of tennis, but that’s my first really clear memory of a match,” Alcaraz said.

Nine years later, he looks like the biggest threat to Nadal and Djokovic at Roland Garros, where all three of them are in the top half of the draw. Alcaraz is clearly at home on hard courts — he won the Miami Open this year — but grew up training almost exclusively on clay.

He already has played in the French Open: He lost in the third round last year to Jan-Lennard Struff, a veteran German. But Alcaraz’s game, strength and confidence have grown considerably since then.

“I see Carlos as a blend of the Big Three,” said Craig O’Shannessy, an Australian tennis analytics specialist who was part of Struff’s team last year. “You’ve got the mentality and tenacity of Nadal and the exquisite timing and willingness to come to the net of Federer. And then you have the aggressive baseline play like Djokovic: the power and flexibility to hit big off both sides from the backcourt.”

For now, Alcaraz says his goal is to win one of the three Grand Slam tournaments remaining in 2022. He was defeated in the third round of this year’s Australian Open in a fifth-set tiebreaker by Matteo Berrettini, double faulting on match point.

“I think it was the right time to lose a match,” Ferrero said. “Maybe he could have won and gone on to the semifinals like Berrettini, but maybe that would not have been as useful as a loss.”

Four months later, after four titles, coach and pupil sound less inclined to see the bright side of defeat. Ferrero already has gone all the way in Paris, and as Alcaraz spoke at the academy in Villena, he did so in a room filled with Ferrero’s trophies, including the smaller model of the Coupe des Mousquetaires presented 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 these, but this place is full of memories and important trophies to Juan Carlos. It’s obviously an inspiration. I hope one day I can match it or go past it.”

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