The Clouds Clear For Carlos Alcaraz
Alcaraz stuns Tsitsipas - Analysis
Saturday, rather than Sunday, analysis this week. Mostly because last night something special happened. 18 year old Leylah Fernandez upsetting Osaka was huge news. Tiafoe beating Rublev in 5 sets was also big news. But Carlos Alcaraz beating 3rd seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, in a five set epic, rocked Arthur Ashe stadium like nothing else this tournament so far.
One of the goals of The Racquet is to give you occasional windows into the future and something resembling cheat-sheets for what unfolds in matches. Luckily enough this season this has happened quite a few times. I wrote about Rublev’s 2nd serve issues in Monte Carlo which informed a bunch of the Russian’s results later this season, including his recent final in Cincinnati. During Rome I wrote about Nadal’s recent supremacy over Djokovic on clay resting on his short point performance, and serve and return +1 forehands, which very specifically got blown up when they met in Paris a week or so later. I wrote about Berrettini at Queens having the game and serve to beat nearly everyone on grass at the moment, but why and how Djokovic was the exception, which came true at Wimbledon weeks later. During Toronto I wrote about Medvedev and Zverev ushering in a new play-style meta on the men’s tour which manifested again a week later in Cincinnati. And in July when Carlos Alcaraz won his first ATP title in Umag I wrote about where his game stands and his abnormally high ceiling when it comes to return of serve. I list all of these firstly to shamelessly brag, and secondly because it serves as a good north star test of whether I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing.
And so, conveniently for me, Alcaraz’s performance last night builds on that first title and that analysis. And boy does it build.
There were many great moments in the match. Alcaraz fighting back from 2-5 in the 3rd set, saving three set points, to lead two sets to one thanks to his never-say-die attitude (gold dust in professional tennis). Hitting a second serve ace to save break point at 5-5 in that 3rd set. Generally blasting both forehand and backhand winners for fun, while also mixing in deft drop shots and the occasional slice to exploit his opponent’s positioning.
Tsitsipas: ‘The ball speed was incredible. I've never seen anybody hit the ball so hard.”
The match taken as a whole was pretty extraordinary when you consider how new Alcaraz is to these sorts of scenarios, especially in best of 5, Slam format. For much of the match the 18 year old was consistently the better, and more powerful, player from the baseline, with Tsitsipas having to lean more heavily on his serve.
The 5th set tiebreaker acts as both a micro and macro view into how the match unfolded as it did. So I thought we’d take a look at those points specifically.
0-0 Tsitsipas ace
3-1* Tsitsipas ace
5-2* Tsitsipas ace
6*-3 (match point):
6*-4 (match point #2):
6-5* (match point #3):
When watching that deciding tiebreak, a few themes emerge that reflected chunks of the match as a whole. Tsitsipas, unless he hit an ace in the breaker, was always in trouble as rallies developed. Part of this is down to the fact that Alcaraz has a more balanced baseline game than Tsitsipas — the 18 year old Spaniard can comfortably trade, defend and attack off both forehand and backhand wings, while Tsitsipas can trade and attack with both forehand and backhand but has the classic single handed-backhand hole in his defensive game on that wing — This left Alcaraz with pretty regular rally advantages where he could load groundstroke pace or serves into the Tsitsipas backhand corner and usually profit (the match point above is a great example of this). There was also a pretty significant return of serve edge in the tiebreaker compounded by Tsitsipas landing some unusually slow and safe 2nd serves.
Tsitsipas won just 48% of his 2nd serve points for the match (43% across the three sets he lost). That’s just the 8th time he’s been in the 40’s on 2nd serve in the last 52 weeks of hard court matches, and more than 8% lower than his average over that period. The interesting thing about this matchup is that because Tsitsipas doesn’t really exploit the area of Alcaraz’s game which still needs significant work — the serve — the 18 year old is actually pretty comfortable considering his existing return of serve edge. Alcaraz won 60%(!) of his 2nd serve points, which is just straight up bad news if you’re world number three Tsitsipas. Better returners have made Alcaraz pay in that regard, while Tsitsipas could not. This remains the only, admittedly stingy, reason (and it is a very stingy reason) to temper the hype around Alcaraz after this match — this particular matchup may slightly flatter the 18 year old considering the strengths and weaknesses of both players. But even so, what a special performance.
Regardless of the above, Carlos Alcaraz has very much arrived. The 18 year old deserves all the applause and the excitement in the aftermath of that extraordinary match. And excitingly, that ceiling that was still mostly hidden in the clouds in Umag a few months ago, is just starting to reveal itself.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
See you on Thursday.
Top: Elsa/Getty, Bottom: TPN/Getty
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