The Carlos Alcaraz Show Returns to Raves

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — It’s a pretty easygoing crowd at the BNP Paribas Open in the heart of the Coachella Valley.

Spectators soak up the sun. They wander the grounds while gazing at the mountains. They drink cheap beer priced expensively. Sometimes they watch tennis. Often they don’t.

And then Saturday night rolled around, and just about every seat in Stadium 1 was occupied on a breezy night in the desert that was chilly enough for puffer jackets.

Carlos Alcaraz was in the house, tender hamstring and all, trying to deliver this tournament — and really the sport itself — the kind of juice that only he seems able to deliver these days, especially with Rafael Nadal sidelined with an injury and Novak Djokovic prohibited from entering the United States because of his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

To do that, though, Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish star, needs to be on the court, and that has not happened much since he blasted his way to his first Grand Slam title and the No. 1 ranking at the U.S. Open in New York last September.

That effort required a series of marathon matches, including one that lasted until nearly 3 in the morning. He has been mostly hobbling ever since. He battled an abdominal injury through the fall. Then, in his final practice before his scheduled journey to the Australian Open, he pulled a hamstring as he sprinted and stretched to reach a short ball.

Alcaraz, whose foot-on-the-gas style may make him more prone to injuries, like his compatriot Nadal, returned to play two small tournaments last month in South America. He won the title in Buenos Aires. Then, in Rio de Janeiro, he made the final but aggravated his hamstring midway through his three-set loss to Cameron Norrie of Britain. He pulled out of his next tournament, in Acapulco, to rest for Indian Wells, where tournament organizers fretting over the loss of Nadal and Djokovic were praying that Alcaraz could recover in time.

“The tennis insiders knew that there was this new kid, maybe the next Rafa,” Tommy Haas, the German former pro who is the tournament director here, said of Alcaraz in the tense days before the start of the tournament. “And all of a sudden he just has a blowout year and becomes the youngest No. 1 of all time and you go, ‘How is this possible, and how amazing is he to watch?’”

There are a handful of players that can make an early-round match feel like a big event, and Alcaraz did so on Saturday night as he ambushed Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia and won in straight sets.

Iga Swiatek of Poland, the women’s No. 1, had played in the afternoon in a mostly empty stadium. Taylor Fritz, the defending champion and top American, and Ben Shelton, also an American and the young season’s brightest surprise, then dueled in a tight, three-set battle that filled a good majority of the Stadium 1 seats. But it was nothing compared with the packed crowd that Alcaraz drew for the night’s final match.

Even Jimmy Connors, who knows something about putting on a show, stuck around, sitting high in the stadium in the media seats. Alcaraz was at it again on Monday night, playing in the headliner’s spot — albeit in front of a thinner, school night crowd — against Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands. The basketball great and tennis obsessive Dirk Nowitzki was courtside.

There is that crackling forehand that sounds different from everyone else’s, more like an ax splitting a log than polyester strings thumping a fuzzy ball. There are all the desperate sprints after nearly out-of-reach balls that so many players ignore. He has the most delicate and deceptive drop shot and stinging volleys.

When a willowy drop shot clipped the tape and trickled just over the sideline, he twisted in anguish. How dare the gravity and subtle currents of the desert air conspire to interfere with his attempts at perfection.

“I try to make the people enjoy watching tennis,” Alcaraz said after his first win. “And I think the way that I play, they love it.”

He will play Jack Draper of Britain in the round of 16 Tuesday evening.

The game wears on many younger players. The pressure of expectations, the constant attention and the relentless schedule have toppled top talents, either temporarily, in the case of Nick Kyrgios, or permanently. A year ago, Ashleigh Barty retired as the world No. 1 at 25.

There are also players a few years older than Alcaraz who have flirted with his level, or achieved it, only to fall back before fans could get on the bandwagon.

Daniil Medvedev won the U.S. Open in 2021 and rose to the top spot in the rankings early last year but won just two minor titles. At the moment, he is on a 16-match winning streak. Stefanos Tsitsipas has made two Grand Slam finals, but nerves and Djokovic got the better of him both times.

As for the players who are of Alcaraz’s vintage, they know his early success has set a standard that will be hard to match.

“I will try,” Lorenzo Musetti of Italy, who is 21 and grew up playing in junior tournaments with Alcaraz, said unconvincingly with a shake of his head after his second-round loss here over the weekend.

So far, Alcaraz has seemed immune to the usual anxieties. His approach?

“Live the moment, play the match, and go for it,” he said.

Alcaraz has had some help this week in producing the kind of buzz the sport is always seeking. Emma Raducanu of England, who won the 2021 U.S. Open as a qualifier, has gone on a roll, winning three consecutive matches for just the second time since her breakout Grand Slam win.

The success has come largely out of nowhere. Raducanu, who last month deleted Instagram from her phone to better focus on herself, has been battling injuries and illnesses, most recently a wrist problem. She hardly prepared for this tournament and didn’t practice for four days ahead of her first match.

But on Monday afternoon against Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil, the 13th seed, Raducanu was once more whipping her lethal forehands into the corners and rolling her windmill backhand with a freedom that had been largely absent for the past year. And she was doing it in front of a raucous field-court crowd, just like in the not-so-old days of the 2021 U.S. Open. She was scheduled to play Swiatek on Tuesday in a matchup between the two most recent U.S. Open champions.

“I did a really good job mentally of just staying, you know, keep hitting through the shots and trying to be committing to everything, even when it’s tight,” she said after her three-set win.

In other words, what the player everyone now calls Carlito plans to do on Tuesday night against Draper, who at 21 may be a rival for long time.

“I’m going to enjoy it,” Alcaraz said.

More than likely, so will pretty much everyone watching.

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