Carlos Alcaraz plays Matteo Berrettini at the Australian Open

VILLENA, Spain — The tennis academy’s rowdy Christmas party was going on in the adjoining room. But Carlos Alcaraz sat quietly at a table surrounded by trophies and spoke of the beauty of training in this remote, relaxed and ‘quiet’ place.

It was hard not to spot a metaphor as the dance music pounded through the wall.

Alcaraz, a dynamic and brilliant Spaniard who is one of the most exciting next-generation talents in the sport, will have to continue to block a lot of commotion to fulfill his rightly big dreams.

At the age of 18, he makes comparisons with Rafael Nadal, his compatriot, at the same age, even though their styles are different and Alcaraz has a picture of Roger Federer, not Nadal, in his room. But just like Nadal in the past, Alcaraz is a true child prodigy: he was already in 31st place on the tour and qualified from that spot at the Australian Open, where he advanced to the third round despite contracting the coronavirus in November and the skip all lead. at tournaments.

“I think he’s written greatness all over him,” said Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras and Federer, now works with American Taylor Fritz, and who is generally wary of praising players too quickly.

But Alcaraz, the youngest player in the Melbourne men’s draw, can certainly enthrall you with his airborne, all-court tennis.

At six feet tall, he is the same height as Federer and Nadal, but significantly shorter than the new wave’s leaders – Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini – who are all six feet or taller. But on the field, he doesn’t look like an under-leveraged underdog.

His playing is a mesmerizing blend of quick punching power, abrupt tempo changes and quicksilver moves akin to a gymnast sliding into corner crevices and keeping his body in check even in extreme positions.

“His game is electric,” Annacone said. “It’s a bit like lightning in a bottle. He’s got that fast racket, like Andre Agassi, and he’s got the fast feet like Rafa. He can play at the baseline and he can back up when needed. So obviously he’s got a lot of stuff at 18 and he’s already 30 in the world, so I just can’t imagine how good he will be in two years if he stays healthy.”

Alcaraz is coached by Juan Carlos Ferrero, a single Spaniard and former No. 1 in the world, whose calm gaze seems to fit well with the stark, elongated landscape at Villena in southeastern Spain full of medieval fortresses and open space. Ferrero grew up nearby and is now one of the owners of the JC Ferrero Ekelite Sport Academy, where Alcaraz directs and trains.

“The key this year is to keep working well and not for a moment think that the hard work is already done,” Ferrero said. “But knowing Carlos and the values ​​he and his family have, I would be very surprised if he let success go to his head.”

Alcaraz was born into a tennis family in El Palmar, a suburb of Murcia, about an hour’s drive from Villena. Alcaraz’s paternal grandfather, also known as Carlos, helped transform a yacht club in El Palmar into a club with tennis courts and a swimming pool. Alcaraz’s father, also called Carlos, learned to play the game, inspired by the achievements of Manuel Santana, Spain’s first Wimbledon champion, who died in December.

But despite becoming one of Spain’s best players, Alcaraz’s father lacked the money to pursue a professional career for a long time: he retired at the age of 20 to become a tennis coach and administrator at the club. Alcaraz, the second of four sons, has taken the family passion to the next level.

At the age of 3 he already hit balls against the wall with a small racket at the club in El Palmar.

“There was no way to get him out of there,” his father explained. “I was already tired and ready to go home after a full day of work and Carlos would beg me: ‘Play with me, right here on the wall!’ It would be after 9pm, and I’d say. “Okay, but only 20 minutes.” And after 20 minutes we would go another 30 minutes, and he would want more and more. And I’d be the one to say, ‘This can’t go on, dinner’s ready and we have to go home.’ And he would cry again.”

The father soon realized that his son was a quick study and made sure to get Alcaraz a full tennis toolkit, including the drop shot that Alcaraz used so effectively in his second round win over Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic on Wednesday.

Alcaraz’s family could not afford his travels and training, but they got support from Murcian businessman Alfonso Lopez Rueda, a family friend who provided the approximately 2,000 euros Alcaraz needed to travel to a junior tournament in Croatia when he turned 10. years old.

After Alcaraz lost in the final and returned to El Palmar, Lopez Rueda said he would be happy to continue to provide financial support.

“Carlos and our family are eternally grateful to him,” said Alcaraz’s father.

With Alcaraz’s talent and junior achievements, eventually came other benefactors, including IMG, the global management firm that has long had a significant presence in tennis.

Albert Molina, Alcaraz’s agent at IMG, worked with David Ferrer, the retired Spanish star, and Ferrero, and that’s how the coaching connection came about in 2018 after Ferrero broke up with Zverev on bitter terms.

Alcaraz spends weekdays at the academy and returns to El Palmar at the weekend. “I once planned to stay at home, but it was difficult to find practice partners,” he said. “I think if I had stayed in Murcia it would have taken me longer to get up. In Murcia there are more distractions. Lots of friends. Going out at night. Here at the academy I don’t have that.”

Ferrero appreciates that Alcaraz’s father does not interfere with his coaching. Ferrero, nearly as skinny at age 41 as he was in his prime, won the French Open and reached No. 1 in 2003 before Federer and Nadal took command. He has been where Alcaraz wants to come.

“I’m still quite young, and I’m going through a period where everything is new to me, and Juan Carlos has already been through this, and he can really bring me that experience that other coaches can’t,” said Alcaraz. “He lived it from within.”

And which Ferrero tip has proven to be the most helpful so far?

“He mainly told me not to be in a hurry,” said Alcaraz. “That I’m going to get the experience and play the tournaments and learn the tricks of the trade, and that there’s no need to get ahead of the process. I need to live all these moments and not be in a rush for the results right away, because for the first time I will be taking on the best in the world in all these tournaments that I am playing for the first time. And I have to enjoy it and respect it and get the experience that I need to have a clear picture of it.”

That didn’t stop the coach and pupil from announcing high goals for 2022, including securing a place in the top 15. Alcaraz made it clear on Monday that he prefers to make the top eight and qualify for the top 15. season-ending ATP Finals in Turin, Italy.

What is clear as Alcaraz prepares to face number 7-seeded Berrettini in the third round on Friday in Melbourne is that the best players in the world are already nervous. He may not have a driver’s license, but he does have game.

Just ask Tsitsipas, who defeated Alcaraz at the 2021 US Open in a fast-paced third-round thriller that ended in a fifth-set tiebreaker and was overflowing with daring shots.

“The ball speed was incredible,” said Tsitsipas. “I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball so hard. Took time to adapt.”

Alcaraz reached the quarterfinals in New York, where he retired for the first time on the main tour and retired in the second set against Felix Auger-Aliassime due to a thigh injury.

“That was a real shame,” said Alcaraz. “I don’t like to give up on anything, but the pain was so bad that I was afraid I would do something more serious if I kept playing.”

But the Tsitsipas match stayed with him. In his eyes, it was the best example yet of how he wants to perform. He played positive, attacking tennis with full intensity – “Beastly”, said Alcaraz with a chuckle – but also enough fun in the moment not to get tense. There were smiles under duress.

“I’m a kid who needs to be happy and alive on the pitch,” said Alcaraz. “If I’m dead serious all the time, it’s not a good sign for me. It makes me more nervous.”

What caught Ferrero’s attention was how Alcaraz reacted to the large stage of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis-specific stadium in the world with its 23,771 seats. Off the track, Alcaraz is cheerful and easy-going. Ferrero uses words like “cercana” (close) and “abierta” (open) and “fiel” (loyal).

But with the ball in play, it’s fierce and intense.

“On the track, he’s a fighter,” Ferrero said. “The best players have character, a lot of it. To compete in the US Open and play Tsitsipas on the biggest course in the world, if you don’t have character, you cringe. Carlos is just the opposite. He seems to get bigger and I think that’s a very good sign.”

Getting stronger is also part of the plan. Alcaraz spent much of this off-season the same way he spent much of last off-season: doing strength and conditioning work to prepare for best-of-five set tennis and a busy schedule. Going sleeveless in Melbourne was partly a link to the past of Spanish tennis stars (such as Nadal and Carlos Moya), but also a sign of confidence in his more muscular build.

“We know that I will have to play some long games this year, so it’s important to feel physically strong,” said Alcaraz. “Knowing you can keep it going is very important.”

Ferrero likes to compare Alcaraz to a car with a powerful engine that needs a chassis sturdy enough to support it.

“You can take great pictures when you’re 17 or 18, but if you don’t have the physical level either, it’s not sustainable,” Ferrero said. “It’s essential work, but it has to be done right. You can’t go too fast.”

The academy in Villena was founded by Antonio Martinez Cascales, Ferrero’s longtime coach. There were only two red clay courts when Ferrero arrived at the age of 15, but it now has 20 courts and has become one of the leading academies in Spain. There are hard courts, including an indoor hard court, and an artificial grass court, as well as a pool, cabins, and an expansive clubhouse decorated primarily with memorabilia from Ferrero’s career.

A clay court is named in honor of David Ferrer; another in honor of Pablo Carreño Busta, the 30-year-old who remains the highest-ranked player in the academy at number 21, even as Alcaraz has become the center of the news media.

“People focus on me because I’m young and I’m doing really well, and people are always interested when you do things at a young age,” Alcaraz said. “But I really try not to focus on that.”

He acknowledged that it was flattering but hugely premature to be compared to Nadal in light of Nadal’s 20 Grand Slam tournament singles titles and long run at the forefront of global sport.

“I don’t want people to know me as a mini-Nadal or second Nadal,” he said. “I just want to be Carlos Alcaraz.”

And who could that be?

As the dance music went on next door, Alcaraz didn’t hesitate for a moment.

“He’s a young, humble man who knows what to do,” he replied. “A boy who wants to make his dreams come true and works for that, he trains for that every day. I think I am on the right track with my team here at the academy and I hope that in 10 years, when we meet again in this hall, I will have made my dreams a reality.”

Samuel Aranda reporting contributed.

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