Friday, February 23, 2024

Prince of tennis Alcaraz can redefine the game’s peak

Fans of Takeshi Konomi’s super hit manga should sit this one out. It’s time for The Prince of Tennis’s graphic novel hero Ryoma Echizen to make way for the coming-of-age story of a real-life tennis star: Carlos Alcaraz Garfia.

I’ve been playing tennis since the age of 14. For more than half of my 36 playing years, since Roger Federer’s first Wimbledon crown in 2003, three men have dominated tennis like never before in its history. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have together won 65 of the possible 79 Grand Slam tournaments that followed. Together they also held the No. 1 position for an astounding 900 weeks out of the possible 1,000 odd weeks since then. In 2005, Nadal was the first Federer challenger to appear on the scene. The sheer fight that Nadal brought to tennis forced both Federer and him to elevate their games to a level beyond the reach of other ATP tour players. For lesser players like me, it prompted me to adopt Nadal’s signature Babolat gear on court. Just as we tennis fans thought we had seen it all, arrived a new and improved Djokovic in 2011. That ushered in an era of incredible tennis innovation. Season after season, the three pushed each other to redefine peak tennis. Along the way, many youngsters and refurbished veterans did everything they could to challenge the trio’s reign through incredible grit and sparks of brilliance. They even managed to steal a few trophies here and there. But the combined force of Roger, Rafa and Djokovic dispatched most of these challengers to retirement, injury or oblivion.

The Wimbledon final on Sunday changed everything. Carlos Alcatraz not only announced his entry to that elite club, he smashed the door on his way in. Within minutes of his victory, all my messaging groups were flooded with superlatives on the 20-year-old’s drop shots, slices, serves and other technical features as reasons for his victory. Unfortunately, those analyses only capture his training, not the character behind the young man.

This is not the first time that Djokovic has been beaten at a slam final by a player outside the 3-member GOAT (Greatest of All Time) club. He lost in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev at the US Open 2021 final right after scoring three slams on a trot that year. He has even lost to Wawrinka and the overhyped Andy Murray before. But Djokovic’s Sunday loss to Alcaraz was different. Earlier in June, at a French Open semi-final, the new Wimbledon champion could not withstand the force Djokovic unleashed on him. A cramped Alcaraz lost to Djokovic in 4 sets. Were his tennis skills that much lower a few weeks back? Or did his opponent suffer a dramatic decline in the weeks before the championship?

Much top-end professional tennis is played in the mind. Differences in skill, strength, stamina and agility between the top 20 ranked players is quite small and negligible among the top 5. If skill difference was all it took, Alcaraz should’ve crushed every player in every set he ever played, even the 26th ranked Nicólas Jarry who put up a decent fight in the third round. What really sets big players apart from the rest is mostly their minds. It’s their insatiable hunger that never wants to yield a single point, no matter how much effort it takes. They use every lost point as a training guide for their next match. After his semi-final loss to Djokovic at the French Open, Alcaraz admitted that he was nervous right from the start. The intensity of the first two sets cramped his playing arm. The pressure to perform on big occasions instills fear in all of us. At Roland Garros too, Djokovic’s reputation prevented Alacaraz from pacing himself out. He had put so much into the first two sets that his physical reserves got exhausted and he more or less gave up. Djokovic has had this effect on dozens of opponents before.

In beating Djokovic at the centre court of Wimbledon, Alcaraz demonstrated a great example of mind over matter. Within weeks of his previous loss, he had learnt how to take on the best, reputation be damned. The mental duel between the two players was evident in the see-saw match score. Till the start of the third set, the match progressed exactly like their previous one. But this time, Alcaraz just wasn’t ready to give up. With both players poised evenly in the fifth, Djokovic netted a drive volley at break point. Most others in that situation would’ve let that high ball bounce and hit a regulation ground stroke. But Djokovic is not ‘most others.’ His mind seems unable to tell the difference between a big stage and a small one while making bold split-second choices. That single point helped Alcaraz not just hold his serve, but, by his demeanour, also see himself as the day’s champion. Djokovic’s mental-reset racquet smash was too little too late.

The Djokovic team will surely analyse every facet of Alcaraz’s victory and come back with counters for their next meeting. But what I’m really looking forward to is the restart of the tennis innovation era of 2011. Carlos Alcaraz, after all, has officially taken over the role that Nadal, Federer and Novak each have played to push each other and redefine peak tennis.

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Updated: 20 Jul 2023, 08:57 PM IST

#Prince #tennis #Alcaraz #redefine #games #peak

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