Carlos Alcaraz is so good, so young, and wins so often that his success has seemed predetermined.
Of course someone that fast, with hands as soft as an artisan’s and a physique that lands him right in the not-too-tall and not-too-short Goldilocks zone of the modern tennis greats, would become the youngest world No. 1 during the 50-year history of the ATP rankings. He has good genes, too. His father was a nationally ranked professional in Spain as a teenager.
So this was preordained for Alcaraz, the 20-year-old champion who comes to Paris this week as the prohibitive favorite to win the French Open, wasn’t it?
As happens so often in sports, and especially in tennis, where early exposure and training are essential, there was an element of luck that helped create the sport’s heir apparent to the troika of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic that has ruled the men’s game for the better part of the last two decades.
That luck ultimately took the form of a local candy company’s logo, which adorned the shirts Alcaraz wore during his matches from the time he was 10 years old. It was all thanks to happenstance encounters with Alfonso López Rueda, the tennis-playing president of Postres Reina, a Spanish dessert and candy concern known for its puddings and yogurts. López Rueda’s interest in Alcaraz and the support that allowed him to travel Europe and begin competing against older boys in unfamiliar settings may be an explanation for the way Alcaraz, from the beginning of his short career, has almost always displayed a kind of joyous serenity, even as the stage grew bigger and the spotlight hotter.
“Some personalities are just adept at that, some have to learn,” said Paul Annacone, who has coached the great players Federer and Pete Sampras, among others. “He just really seems to enjoy the environment — win, lose, whatever — seems to embrace it.”
The greatest fortune an aspiring tennis player can have, it seems, is to have been born to parents who played the game at the highest level. The pro ranks, especially on the men’s side, are lousy with nepo babies. Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Sebastian Korda, Taylor Fritz and Ben Shelton are all the offspring of former professionals. All of them had a racket in their hands at an early age and nearly unlimited access to someone who knew best what to do with it.
For everyone else, some kismet is key.
The skills professional tennis requires are so specialized, and the long and expensive process of honing them has to start at such a young age. But the player development system in most countries is fractured and happenstance at best, with any school-based programs being mostly limited. Either a family consciously decides to expose a young child to tennis, or the child does not play, at least not seriously.
So it’s hardly a surprise that so many of the creation stories in professional tennis seem to involve a sliding-doors moment.
Frances Tiafoe probably does not end up as a Grand Slam semifinalist if his father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, becomes a maintenance man in an office park instead of at a local tennis club.
Novak Djokovic had the good fortune of meeting Jelena Gencic, one of the top coaches in Serbia, when he was 6 years old and she was giving a tennis clinic on the courts near his parents’ restaurant in Kopaonik, in the Serbian mountains near Montenegro.
Arthur Ashe was traveling in Cameroon in 1971 when he spotted an 11-year-old schoolboy with raw talent to burn. He put in a call to his friend Philippe Chatrier at France’s tennis federation and told him he best come have a look. That boy was Yannick Noah, the last Frenchman to win the French Open.
As with the others, Alcaraz’s preternatural gifts and skills played the biggest role in his good fortune. When he got the chance to impress, he did, but first luck had to deliver an opportunity.
The story of that opportunity begins with Alcaraz’s grandfather’s decision decades ago to develop tennis courts and a swimming pool at a hunting club in El Palmar, a suburb of the city of Murcia. It would have been cheaper to put in all hardcourts, but the Spanish love the red clay. So Grandpa Alcaraz (another Carlos) made sure to include those courts with the development.
Now flash forward to a dozen years ago. López Rueda is the tennis-mad chief executive of Postres Reina, which is based in Caravaca de la Cruz. But López Rueda doesn’t just like tennis; he likes to play tennis on red clay. He lives in the same region as the Alcaraz clan, and the best and most accessible clay courts for him are at a club in El Palmar, so he plays there, said Jose Lag, a longtime Postres Reina executive and an Alcaraz family friend, who spoke on behalf of his boss, López Rueda.
At the club he became friendly with Alcaraz’s father and played as the doubles partner of his uncle. Also, López Rueda’s son, who is three years older than Alcaraz, had the same coach, Kiko Navarro, who could not stop raving about the talents of Carlito. One day López Rueda agreed to watch the boy play and it was unlike anything he had ever seen. Carlito had everything, but his family’s resources were limited. His father was a tennis coach and administrator at the club, and his mother was busy raising the boy and his younger siblings.
López Rueda agreed to loan the family 2,000 euros to travel to a tournament, but then he started to think bigger and decided to get his company involved in supporting this local boy who was already capable of beating taller, stronger and older competition.
Postres Reina had long supported local basketball and soccer teams, but tennis was López Rueda’s favorite sport and the company had never sponsored an individual athlete. Alcaraz became the first, wearing the company logo on his shirts.
The company’s support, which lasted through Alcaraz’s early teenage years, allowed him to continue to access to the best coaching in his region and to travel throughout Europe to play in the most competitive tournaments.
“It was done not as a marketing interest,” Lag said. “It was only to help him. We never thought he would be No. 1.”
Seeing Alcaraz’s success, IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate, signed him at age 13, providing even more access, notably to his current coach, the former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.
There is a fair chance that Alcaraz would have eventually become a top player had López Rueda never seen him. Spain’s tennis federation, which has one of the world’s best talent development pipelines, probably would have caught wind of him before too long.
Max Eisenbud, the director of tennis at IMG, said in any tennis success story the most important ingredient is a solid family willing to take a long-term view toward a child’s success.
“That is the secret recipe,” Eisenbud said during a recent interview, but he acknowledged that financial assistance for a family that needs it can certainly help.
When a player develops as quickly as Alcaraz, rising from outside the top 100 in May 2021 to No. 1 16 months later, each detail of his development can be credited with having a role in the outcome.
Alcaraz’s peers have watched in awe as he has raised his level of play with each tournament, in an era when the constant spotlight tortures so many of them. During Alcaraz’s first months challenging the top rungs of the tour, Alexander Zverev marveled at his ability to play “simply for the joy.”
Alcaraz said that no matter what people saw, getting used to the ever more raucous and pressure-filled environments took some time but he learned fast. A drubbing by Nadal in Madrid two years ago helped but his mind-set never changed.
“I always wanted to play in the great stadiums,” he said. And it has seemed like he really did.
Mostly tennis is one big hoot to Alcaraz, from his first win at a Grand Slam tournament on a back court at the Australian Open in February 2021, to his back-to-back victories over Nadal and Djokovic at the Madrid Open in 2022, to his semifinal showdown against Tiafoe at the U.S. Open last September in front of 23,000 fans and with Michelle Obama sitting in the front row, to his triumph in the finals two days later.
How could that be? Allen Fox, a Division I champion and a 1965 Wimbledon quarterfinalist who later became one of the game’s leading sports psychologists, used the term that professionals use when there is no rational explanation. He described Alcaraz as both a “genius” and a “genetic freak.”
“The only way he loses is when he is missing,” Fox said. “He just plays his same high-risk game, and never takes his foot off the accelerator.”
Matthew Futterman is a veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.” @mattfutterman
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