The perils of placing impossible expectations on Carlos Alcaraz

Carlos Alcaraz was the main draw for the National Bank Open in Toronto this year, but the world No. 1 is only just getting used to the pressure of carrying the future of men's tennis on his shoulders. (Getty Images)

Carlos Alcaraz was the main draw for the National Bank Open in Toronto this year, but the world No. 1 is only just getting used to the pressure of carrying the future of men’s tennis on his shoulders. (Getty Images)

Carlos Alcaraz entered the National Bank Open as the world’s best player with a limitless ceiling, and yet, because of his dizzying, precocious rise to the top of the ATP rankings, he carries a mystique about him that is never afforded to players of his status.

The 20-year-old reigning Wimbledon champion is in Toronto for the first time and coming off his crowning achievement in the onset of his professional career, he is the most intriguing player in the tournament while quickly becoming one of the world’s most visible and well-liked athletes.

Perhaps there’s some fatigue attached to his post-Wimbledon triumph, but the Alcaraz we’ve come to know and expect through the better part of two years did not arrive in Toronto. In a men’s singles draw that will be defined by upsets, Alcaraz would get bounced by Tommy Paul for the second consecutive year at the National Bank Open, and because he carries an aura of invincibility, this will come as a shock to some.

Alcaraz is the reason why fans have flocked to the tournament in record numbers. Aside from hometown hero Milos Raonic, there’s no one remotely close to his domain at the ATP 1000 event, viewed neutrally as a precursor to next month’s US Open, where he is the defending champion, a seismic event that sent his imminent stardom into a new stratosphere last summer, becoming the first teenager to capture the No. 1 ranking in the Open Era.

He was plastered all over the advertisements for the tournament as the headliner for Wednesday’s night session, the second-hottest ticket in town, trailing only Taylor Swift’s The Eras tour rush, where he will eventually face off against upstart American contemporary Ben Shelton after spending nearly a week in Toronto before playing his opening match.

If you view Alcaraz merely from the lens of his prodigious skills, it’s easy to see why he’s both the present and future of men’s tennis. Alcaraz is the fastest player on tour, only rivaled by tournament semifinalist Alex de Minaur (who at the time of this filing, is still alive, and could very much win this tournament of upsets on his current form), he has a proprietary release on his drop shot and his two-hand backhand punctures the baseline defences of the world’s best players. He is a dazzling talent and he plays the game with such unrelenting joy that it’s nearly impossible not to be swept up in his orbit.

Alcaraz is such a magnetic presence that he renders some of his contemporaries as afterthoughts. Holger Rune — the world No. 5 — is Alcaraz’s hitting partner during Sunday’s practice session, but no one is paying any attention to the 20-year-old Dane, who is a week older than Alcaraz and threatens to be one of his primary rivals for years to come. Alcaraz has separated himself from his peers and a pre-tournament practice session almost fills the seats at centre court. A family of four unfurls a Spanish flag over the scoreboard 17 minutes into the practice session and Alcaraz, sporting a fresh haircut, white Nike tee and purple shorts, looks the part of tennis’s preeminent superstar. If Roger Federer carried a regal presence at the peak of his powers, Alcaraz exudes the cool of a modern superstar; he plays with an infectious smile and it’s easy to see why fans are shrieking for him 72 hours before his tournament begins in earnest.

There are tell-tale signs on how to spot an Alcaraz stan: some fans are decked out in Alcaraz’s white-and-green striped Nike shirt that he wore throughout the first half of the 2023 ATP schedule, while there are enough Spanish national football team kits to field a starting eleven. While some have gravitated towards Alcaraz because he represents the prospect of greatness that isn’t associated with the golden generation, he has earned the rock star treatment on his own merits. Young children have brought homemade signs professing their love for Carlitos. No other player has received anything close to this type of fanfare, but throughout the week, no other player has also drawn so many rival chants. Success, of course, breeds contempt.

Shelton, seven months older than Alcaraz and one of the rising stars of the sport with a blistering serve and great court coverage, doesn’t allow the Spaniard to get into a comfortable rhythm during Wednesday’s opening match. Shelton’s return game has been incredible, and it takes Alcaraz 42 minutes to win the first set, 6-3. It doesn’t get much easier in the second set, either. Shelton wins the first game, sending 227-kph rockets with perfect placement in the service box and the audience barely notices, still buzzing from Alcaraz’s first-set victory.

Alcaraz is once again pushed to the limit by Shelton’s pace, but he occasionally displays why he’s worth the price of admission, unleashing his patented drop shot at the net in the second game of the second set, and a gorgeous backhand at the net in the ninth game of the second set, and he eventually wins the match during the tiebreak. It’s a substandard performance from the world’s best player, but he’s gracious towards his opponent.

“I always say the first match in every tournament is never easy. Ben, big bombs, big sauce. I’m really happy to get through,” Alcaraz remarks during his on-court interview.

If you’re invested in Alcaraz advancing to the latter stages — whether you’re a fan, journalist, tournament organizer — it is somewhat disconcerting when Hubert Hurkacz puts Alcaraz on the ropes the following night. The Alcaraz stan contingent isn’t nearly as pronounced on Thursday, and Hurkacz races to a early 3-0 lead. Alcaraz is routinely double-faulting throughout the tournament, his first serve efficiency is plummeting and even his rivals can’t help but notice.

Hurkacz, meanwhile, is destroying Alcaraz on serve, sending a 209-kph missile past him, then proceeds with a 194 km bullet that is untouchable. It’s 4-1 Hurkacz and for the first time, there’s real anxiety and consternation about whether Alcaraz could flame out of the tournament before the weekend. Alcaraz wins the next game comprehensively, punctuated by a beautiful drop shot at the net, but Hurkacz is unfazed and closes out the next game with a 205-kph ace. Alcaraz wins the next game, hitting another gorgeous drop shot that is among the best shots of the event, but Hurkacz annihilates Alcaraz moments later, causing him to fall down and lose his racket unexpectedly on the penultimate point of the set.

The second set doesn’t start much better. Both players trade breaks and Alcaraz’s backhand is troubling him, hitting nearly a dozen shots into the net throughout the match. Neither player can secure another break, the match goes to a tiebreak. Alcaraz’s tournament is in doubt but he wins the tiebreaker 7-2 and survives.

During the third set, we finally get a glimpse of Alcaraz at his breathtaking best. Hurkacz wins the first service game, Alcaraz counters, then breaks his opponent with a terrific forehand winner down the baseline into the ad court. Alcaraz’s service game is rounding into form and during the sixth game, he rips 214-kph and 212-kph aces in succession to win the game, then breaks Hurkacz in a contested seventh game with another perfectly-placed forehand. It’s 5-2 Alcaraz, quickly. And then once again, complacency sets in.

Alcaraz is so gifted that he can often treat matches as laboratory sessions, attempting his drop shot whenever he sees fit and twice, he tries to hit a shot that is best described as a hybrid between a tweener and spin-o-rama. He can up the difficulty for his own amusement. Unfortunately, there are occasional consequences to prioritizing an aesthetically pleasing game over a pragmatic approach and suddenly Alcaraz’s 5-2 lead evaporates like quicksand. Hurkacz has him on the ropes, winning the next four games to put Alcaraz on the brink of elimination. Alcaraz quickly refocuses and easily wins the 12th game, once again going to a tiebreak.

Perhaps the truncated nature of a tiebreak really showcases one’s level, because Alcaraz dismantles Hurkacz with a combination of drop shots, half-volleys and expertly placed serves, surviving in a marathon, two hour and 38 minute thriller. It’s the best match of the tournament from an entertainment perspective, although Alcaraz’s form hasn’t been anywhere close to his standard at Wimbledon.

Find your seats quickly, please! Alcaraz is about to face off against Paul, but it’s difficult to draw parallels to last year, given that the former has won two Grand Slams since last year’s date in Montreal. Before some of the fans can locate their seats, however, Alcaraz double faults on the first point of the match. Here it goes again.

Alcaraz is quickly broken, then makes two unforced errors as Paul races out to a 2-0 first-set lead. Alcaraz recovers quickly on service, but Paul sends him flying all over the court during the fourth game — by itself, this isn’t usually cause for concern, as Alcaraz’s court coverage is unmatched, but tonight, the World No. 1 is the inferior player — and Paul takes a 3-1 lead. Paul breaks Alcaraz again. Alcaraz is playing poorly. He can’t land his forehand, one of the best shots in the sport, while Paul is decimating him with velocity, while daring him to come to the net. That’s usually a death sentence against Alcaraz, but Paul isn’t scared of the moment, he’s defeated him before. Alcaraz double faults on the final point of the ninth game to grant Paul a 6-3 first-set victory, and the crowd groans. They’ve come for the spectacle and instead, they’re witnessing the vulnerability of a 20-year-old looking like a 20-year-old for the first time in months.

Alcaraz and Paul exchange blows on their service game in the second set and the former is much better by the fourth game of the set, dismissing his opponent easily as his first serve accuracy is back to his usual quality. Two games later, an impatient Toronto audience receives a transcendent moment from Alcaraz.

Paul hits a well-placed backhand lob behind the service line, forcing Alcaraz to adjudge the flight and track back to the baseline, where he hits a a jaw-dropping tweener down the line for the winner. The crowd erupts and Alcaraz receives a raucous standing ovation. It’s a brilliant moment from Alcaraz and certainly one that everyone in attendance won’t soon forget. This appears to galvanize Alcaraz, breaking Paul the next game, then survives eight deuce points to go up 5-3, before winning the set 6-4.

Alcaraz’s momentum doesn’t carry over to the third set and we get a near-repeat of the first set’s script. Paul wins the first game after Alcaraz hits into the net on a 18-shot rally, Alcaraz counters in the second game with a 188-kph ace, Paul and Alcaraz trade wins on service, before Paul breaks Alcaraz in the sixth game, a combination of terrific shotmaking from Paul — particularly on his forehand and the culmination of atypical — unforced errors from Alcaraz.

This is not Alcaraz’s night or his tournament, even if the pre-event spectacle rightfully belonged to him. Alcaraz staves off elimination in the eighth game of the third set but it’s short-lived. Paul hits a terrific backhand that Alcaraz can’t get to, causing him to fall down for the second time Thursday, and the third time in two nights. Alcaraz saves one match point but his tournament comes to an end when Paul hits an uncontested backhand down the baseline for the victory. It’s a terrific performance from Paul, a substandard performance from Alcaraz and by the end of the evening, world no. 7 Jannik Sinner is the only seeded player left standing.

In the aftermath of the victory, Paul signs the camera “HI MOM!” and it’s impossible not to be touched while Alcaraz is gracious in defeat nearly an hour later, refusing to blame the balls or his appearance at the Hopman Cup exhibition in July as an excuse. At centre court, the evening session crowd is in a bit of a daze. Paul had ample support throughout the match from the traveling American contingent, but make no mistake, the vast majority of the crowd is here to see Alcaraz and there’s an audible notion of restrained disappointment.

If that’s the case, the fault lies with the viewer. Alcaraz, who has yet to celebrate his 21st birthday, has created an aura of invincibility. And therein lies the perils of expecting perfection from a sport where the difference between brilliance and catastrophe lies within the margins. He’s done enough to feel lucky to be alive at the dawn of his greatness.

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