It is often said that all sports are constantly evolving, say coaches, analysts and athletes. There is also a lot of talk about it in tennis: players who return from a long injury talk about the difficulty of physically catching up with others, of finding the so-called match rhythm; but many also talk about the difficulty of resetting to the game itself, which always appears a little different every time you come back to it after a long period. Sometimes, watching a game, you can be lucky enough to be witnesses to the emergence of a discontinuity, a break with the usual dynamic that suggests a paradigm shift. Gestures that produce a different result than usual and that, repeating the same anomaly several times, begin to resemble an evolutionary gap.
happened for example in the semifinal of the 2011 Australian Open between Federer and Djokovic, already in the first game: Nole serves at 30-40, and in the long exchange of 23 shots at the beginning he neutralizes Federer’s counter forehand with an extension to the right and from then on he is the one to maneuver the exchange, crossing straight three times, with Federer falling further and further behind. Djokovic’s last straight cross is an unexpected acceleration, both in speed and angle, that Federer can only touch and send into the net. The shot, and the way the ball splashes when it hits the ground, has something different from the rest of the rally, something akin to a calculated gear change, as controlled by Djokovic as it was unexpected by Federer. He is not the usual winner who shoots as soon as the opponent’s ball loses depth, allowing more angles of trajectory: Djokovic fires his last straight from midfield and more than a meter from the goal line. Federer comes out beaten from that exchange (and from that match, he lost three sets to nil) with the air of someone who did not expect that ball. It wasn’t a virtuosity or an impregnable stone, it was a ball that weighed differently, and that came at a moment in the exchange when it shouldn’t have come, from an opponent in a neutral and distant position. Djokovic thus began a 2011 in which he would win the first 43 matches of the season, three Grand Slam titles, five Masters 1000 and 10 of the 11 matches played against Federer and Nadal in total.
Photo by Oscar del Pozo/Getty Images.
In the third round of last year’s US Open there was another disturbance in the nature of the game, even more noticeable: Stefanos Tsitsipas, number three in the world, a finalist at Roland Garros a few months earlier and winner of the ATP finals in 2019, meets with Carlos Alcaraz, number 55 at 18 years and two months. Alcaraz is no stranger, the results of the season (first ATP title and two semifinals, third round at Roland Garros since qualifying) make him a promise, a feeling accentuated by the similarities with Nadal’s results at the same age. The match comes in the fifth set after Alcaraz lost 6-0 in the fourth, but later arrive on 4-3 for Tsitsipas with Alcaraz in service. He could have faltered, lost confidence as many do in the decisive moments of a match bigger than themselves, it would have meant nothing anyway. Tsitsipas himself in Paris had lost to Djokovic in the June final, after winning the first two sets. Alcaraz, on the other hand, puts into practice a game made of a new tennis: he plays practically alone, while Tsitsipas tries to respond with his beautiful, strong and tense shots, which turn him like stones.
It is worth reviewing that game, which Alcaraz won at 30 and in which, therefore, six points were played. The two won by Tsitsipas are a double fault from Alcaraz at 30-0 and a net attack from Tsitsipas followed by a backhand cross from Alcaraz that ends up in the hall at 40-15. The points won by Alcaraz are the moments in which the mutation emerges, in which Tsitsipas, despite being number three in the world, is impotent, almost scared: two crossed rights, a backhand along the line and one crossed. Like Djokovic in 2011 with Federer, they are points where the winning shot that closes them appears as an alteration of the physics of the exchange that preceded it, angles and speeds that do not seem to rest on what happened before, as if they were coming. out of nowhere. All those Alcaraz shots are taken in a neutral position, from behind the baseline, as Djokovic had done. Only that Federer had at least put the racket in Djokovic’s last winning straight, in New York Tsitsipas loses those four points when seeing an unattainable ball pass. A mutation that supplants the previous one.
There have been many matches won with extreme aggressiveness by underprivileged players, who, moving only within very narrow margins of risk, managed to deprive the expert opponent of his tactics and defensive ability: Nadal in particular was repeatedly the victim of boarding encounters, for example against Tsonga in 2008 in Australia, Soderling at Roland Garros in 2009, Rosol and Kyrgios at Wimbledon, in 2012 and 2014. But Alcaraz never stopped playing like he did against Tsitsipas, because it was not a match all inside in which he tried everything, and everything magically succeeded. Alcaraz has transformed the so-called low risk game low percentage game, at cruising speed, in a new normal. She succeeded because she supports him with a mobility that at 19 years old is already the best in the world. It would be enough to make him a complete player by contemporary standards, an excellent one. baseline like many others, but what is surprising about Alcaraz is that it is only one aspect of his tennis. He has a fully developed defensive capacity, the result of the elasticity (flexes, slides, single-leg recovery winner) that a player like Djokovic has imposed on subsequent generations; based on this already resolved coexistence of defense and attack, Alcaraz has been able to count on a touch ability, unusual today, that allows him to go to the net without fear, not to close off a point already won but to search for the ball with the confidence of being able to hit a low volley that can hit well at an angle, or just over the net.
But it is perhaps the short ball that makes the most difference with the rivals: in the five games prior to the final won in Miami (youngest winner in history), Alcaraz used the short ball 59 times, winning the point 51 times, with a predilection for drop shot right, which is generally used less than the reverse. One of the very few aspects in which, being so young, he still does not appear complete is in the serve, which still does not express a great capacity for placement and power. But it makes up for it with the service kickthat is, with rotation in top spin, which makes it extremely difficult to respond because the rebound immediately rises above the shoulder, especially when serving from the left where it is already capable of taking the opponent out of the field better than the serve to serve from a left-hander .
Photo by Jose Manuel Alvarez/Getty Images.
When the 20-year-old Tsitsipas lost in the semi-finals to Nadal in Melbourne in 2019, his first comment was that Nadal “has the ability to make you play bad,” frustrated that Nadal’s tactical genius and tenacity had unraveled his attacking solos, wondering how Federer, who has “a game similar to mine”, had managed to beat him so many times. After the loss to Alcaraz, more than three years later, he limited himself to saying that he had never seen anyone hit so hard and that at first it was difficult to get used to that weight of the ball. But in that seventh game of the fifth set, hours after Tsitsipas had to get used to the new cruising speed that Alcaraz imposed, the bewilderment felt the same as at the beginning. He also lost us the other two times he faced him after New York, he also said that he reminds him of the great enthusiasm he felt early in his career. Tsitsipas is only 23 years old, he is not even a veteran.
But when it was Alcaraz who faced Nadal, it was different: last year in Madrid he beat Nadal 6-1 6-2, then this year they played the semifinals in Indian Wells and Nadal broke a rib to beat him in the third set. They played again in Madrid in the quarterfinals last month and this time it was Alcaraz who won in three sets, even after going down with all his weight on his right ankle. The next day, with the ankle bandaged, beat Djokovic in the semis in three and a half hours. He beat her 7-6 in the third, after losing the first set. Still 24 hours later, he beat Zverev 6-3, 6-1 in the final, who along with Tsitsipas is part of that generation that should have replaced the big three and that he must now redesign his game to face this new mutant opponent that everyone sees as the only other favorite at Roland Garros besides Djokovic and Nadal.
Tsitsipas, Zeverev, Medvedev and the others Next Generation that finally they were taking all the top 10 little by little, at 18 they were not even close to the levels of play and ranking of Alcaraz. It has not happened since Nadal’s 2005 with his first Roland Garros at 19, although for some time now it seems that sports science, after years of triumphs for those over 25, is once again learning how to generate high-level teenage tennis players ( Sinner, for example), recalling the times of the youth champions of the 80s and 90s like Michael Chang and Boris Becker, or Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis. try it too WTA number one Iga Swiatek, who at the age of 20 also changed women’s tennis, expressing a suffocating attack and defense capacity that creates a disconcerting distance with the rest of her opponents. Curiously, the last one who has been able to dominate it in recent times has been Ash Barty, who gave it number one when he retired a few months ago at the age of 25. Barty, expression of a classic tennis based on the construction of the point, in variations of touch and aggressiveness, has expressed a union of intelligence and talent that dialogues only with that of Federer. Before it was called tennis. the whole court, in the sense that it was made up of all the ingredients of the game: volleyball, baseline, corners, power serve, etc. Swiatek, which belongs to Djokovic’s evolutionary line, has replaced the variety the whole court with the ability to be anywhere on the field, with speed and coordination beyond comprehension.
This may be why IMG, a company that has long been discovering and representing many tennis stars, has created an invitation-only tournament dedicated to tennis players under 12. It was held in Athens a few weeks ago. a New York Times report recounts the bizarre interweaving of dreams, enterprising parents, executive Nike and his agents search for the future star before someone else steals it. There is a rush to repopulate the world of tennis: soon Federer, Nadal, Dojokovic, Murray and the Williams sisters will be officially out of the game and new icons need to be created. Just like Alcaraz, who played at an exhibition in Athens. There was also her brother Jaime, a 10-year-old aspiring tennis player. Jaime lost 6-1 6-0 to Teo Davidov, a little boy born in Bulgaria and raised in Colorado. Teo only plays straight, with both hands. Well born, he was trained by his father, who in a video He says that he chose to practice the two rectus to stimulate both cerebral hemispheres. He then says that Teo also does Olympic weights. Teo confirms his father’s enthusiasm for him and says that he wants to become “the best in tennis and the best in life.” The mutation continues.