Carlos Alcaraz is trying to rediscover tennis tunnel vision at the moment. He’s checked out of the hitting zone temporarily. After a three-set defeat to Grigor Dimitrov in the Shanghai Masters, the Spaniard lamented the opportunities that have passed him by in the race for the number one ranking.
Alcaraz was on top of the world following a mesmerizing win over Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon in July. This was the beginning of a beautiful new rivalry, with a huge battle on the court and a great deal of respect off it. Alcaraz managed to keep his counsel after losing the opening set at SW19, something that normally means a certain defeat against the Serb. “I thought, ‘Carlos, increase the level; everyone will be disappointed,” he said.
No one was disappointed. He beat the big beast of tennis in a five-setter that wowed. Psychologically, he showed enormous strength of character to prove that the physical French Open collapse against the best player in the world wasn’t a mental block. This was proof positive that the new kid on the block had arrived in the land of giants.
The aftermath popped the bubble a bit. The world No. 2 has struggled to recapture the joy of that performance, while Djokovic is a man mountain with an extra peak.
There are worse travails than growing pains for a 20-year-old double Grand Slam champion, but Alcaraz’s loss to an inspired Daniil Medvedev in the semi-finals of the US Open was a punch in the solar plexus. He said it would take days or a few weeks to get over it. The latter prediction is about right. Truth be told, the world was looking forward to the reunion of the two greatest players at Flushing Meadows after their first bout on the other side of the Atlantic.
Sport doesn’t always provide the perfect denouement. While Medvedev earned the right to claim his final berth, his efforts to defuse Djokovic were not enough to provide a competitive contest. The Russian lost in three sets. The 36-year-old got a magical 24th Slam.
The A-listers were sitting in their celebrity seats, but, at times, Medvedev felt like a last-minute replacement boxer who had stepped in for the main event. Djokovic ruled the world again without having to confront the cannon fire Carlos creates.
During that defeat in New York, Alcaraz lost the first set tiebreaker after generally dominating the match. He couldn’t get over it and ceded the second. It’s become a worrying habit. “I thought that right now I am a better player to find solutions when the match is not going in the right direction for you. But after this match, I’m going to change my mind. I’m not mature enough to handle these kinds of matches. So I have to learn about it,” he mused. It was some confession.
Djokovic has skipped the Asian round of events to take a well-earned breather, and Alcaraz had hoped to make some strides in his absence. It hasn’t worked out in his favour. Jannik Sinner defeated the Murcia man in the semi-final of the China Open, nudging ahead of his opponent over their seven head-to-heads. Again, the second set downer – a 6-1 shellacking – came on the back of losing a tiebreak, just as it had in the Big Apple.
“In the second set, I was mentally out. I was complaining too much, something that really makes it difficult for you to play at your best level. That’s what it means to be angry with yourself. This is what happened,” admitted the Wimbledon champion.
Alcaraz has nothing to worry about in the long term. His ability alone will earn him plenty of major finals. However, the public acknowledgement of a missing link mentally will be useful information for his peers. These ups and downs could be the San Andreas fault they are looking for.
If Alcaraz is going through the twilight zone at the moment without the presence of his frenemy, Djokovic, there might be an understandable dip in mental armoury. The next big one is in Australia. The Spaniard has work to do to ensure that his mind and metal plate armour are back on for what could be the longest 15 days of his career.