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How Carlos Alcaraz’s charisma and smile give him an extra edge over his rivals
The 20-year-old is as popular with his fellow players as he is with the fans, which many think helps his performances on the court
Carlos Alcaraz has been a favourite with the fans since the first moment he arrived on the ATP Tour, the young Spaniard mixing incredible athleticism with easy power, deft drop shots and a relentless will to win that has already taken him to the top of the sport.
Of the many things that go into making him a champion – he won the US Open last September and is favourite to win a second slam at Roland-Garros this coming weekend – there is one thing that is arguably more important than all the rest; his smile.
It comes after a great shot but it’s also evident after a long rally, a brutal exchange, even sometimes when he loses the point. It’s utterly disarming, charming and seemingly natural. There is nothing mechanical about him or his game; he loves the battle and relishes being out there.
Clijsters: “It definitely gives him an edge”
Few players have that kind of charisma and Alcaraz is already reaping the benefits. Just look at what happens on the court; he pummels a player into submission and yet the handshake from the beaten man is always warm, the words afterwards effusive. In a similar way to Roger Federer, everyone seems to love Carlos, even when he’s busy dashing their dreams. It’s a gift, and one that elevates him above the rest.
“It does definitely give him an edge,” former women’s world No 1 Kim Clijsters said at Roland-Garros. “I think for him it’s also important to to keep that innocence, to play freely and to run all these we like him to keep that childish kind of attitude because he is still a kid.”
Frenchman Henri Leconte was a player who often used the crowd to his advantage, making them laugh, getting them behind him. Alcaraz does it through the quality of his shot-making and his incredible court coverage, leaving the crowd gasping.
Leconte: “He’s really enjoying himself on court, which is very rare”
“I’m so happy, first of all, to see him be able to produce that kind of tennis and be happy on the court, smiling most of the time, which is for us really, really important,” Leconte said. “We are missing that. We are missing personalities. We’re missing that.
“He’s really enjoying himself on the court, which is very rare. And that’s why different players from now on, they’ve been very concentrated, which is good. But we need to have some fun sometimes, so that helps a lot. And maybe it could be an opportunity for the other guys to realise what they have to do and also to understand the game and be able to give it back some things to the crowd and for even for themselves.
“Because, you know, sometimes when you smile and you look at someone and you just say, listen, okay, you are playing too well, I know you miss a shot and you just enjoy it. That could release sometimes the pressure.”
“He’s stealing their lunch money”
Courtney Nguyen, who writes for the WTA Tour, described the dynamic perfectly on Radio Roland-Garros this year when she said: “He’s stealing their lunch money”. And yet, his rivals speak of him in reverent tones, a strange dynamic when you consider that he is effectively stopping them from realising their goals.
“For sure, I see a friend,” Lorenzo Musetti, the Italian, said on the eve of his fourth-round meeting with Alcaraz. “I see that he started a way, a new generation. He’s the first Grand Slam title after the Big Three, so I think it’s sort of inspiration for us, for me, Holger (Rune), Jannik (Sinner), and whoever is behind him.”
Tsitsipas: “Of course he has that smile”
“Carlos is someone that keeps the intensity high at all times. He’s someone that is not going to give you gaps where his attention is not there,” Tsitsipas said. “He’s very hyper. He’s very energetic, and you can see that on the court. He adds a lot of that into the rallies, into his just rituals when he is out there playing the game.
“Of course he has that smile that he said obviously helps him a lot. Right now he’s one of the biggest obstacles and challenges for any player to compete against.”
“It’s like kids wanting to see Mickey Mouse”
Clijsters said Alcaraz’s ability to smile was a childlike innocence.
“I think it’s just a natural kind of thing where you’re excited to be a part of this lifestyle for a little,” she said, comparing seeing the world’s biggest tennis stars up close to young kids wanting to see Mickey Mouse and Disney figures in the cinema.
“That’s how I felt when I was younger, especially growing up watching all these tournaments. I loved watching Steffi (Graf) play, watching Gabriela play. So when you have that moment, I think that’s admiration. Then you’re there and you know how much work you’ve put into it and yet at the same time, that’s the only way to play your best is when you feel that kind of free spirit.
“I saw him walking the other day, at the transportation, with a big smile, says hi to everybody and that’s great to see.”
Team will help when innocence wears off
The childlike joy may be tough to maintain as the years go by, as staying in hotels and travelling from city to city loses some of his lustre. That’s where his team, Clijsters said, will help.
“There’s definitely going to be moments where he’s going to struggle,” she said. “But having Juan Carlos on his team is such an advantage, to have somebody there who’s been through it and who knows that you have to turn that switch off once in a while so that you’re hungry and excited to be at the next events.
“It’s a really exciting time to see him develop and and become even an more consistent player.”