Meet Mark Lajal, the qualifier taking on Carlos Alcaraz at Wimbledon

The 21-year-old Estonian has qualified for the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career at Wimbledon. Last December, he spoke with Tennis Majors about his career so far and goals for the future

Mark Lajal, Wimbledon qualifying, 2024 Mark Lajal, Wimbledon qualifying, 2024 © Antoine Couvercelle

21-year-old Estonian tennis player Mark Lajal is about to experience the biggest moment of his fledgling career.

On Monday, he will open play on Centre Court against the defending champion, as tradition has dictated at SW19 for over a hundred years. It is one of the grandest occasions this sport has to offer.

Lajal will face a player just seven days older than him, but the gulf in experience between the pair could not be much wider. Three-time major champion Carlos Alcaraz will be Lajal’s opponent on the Estonian’s debut appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam.

It will be a seismic occasion for Lajal. But this talented youngster has never been one to shy away from the limelight.

“The goal is to be world No 1,” Lajal told Tennis Majors when interviewed at the Patrick Mouratoglou Academy last December and last Sunday in London.

There was not a flicker of irony or a hint of a playful grin on the young man’s face as these words confidently rolled off his tongue – he was simply stating a matter of fact.

Not much has changed for Lajal in the past six months, other than the hairstyle. True, his ranking has dipped from what was a career-best of No 191 in the world to No 262. But the outlook and the long-term vision remain very much the same.

“I would have said the same thing,” Lajal said, with just the faintest hint of a smile, when asked what his 14-year-old self would have made of his current ambitions.

“But I would have said my belief was different in myself,” he quickly added.

“I would say that right now I believe in myself much more than I did when I was 14 years old.

“A couple of wins in 2023 [is what helped things click], that proved to myself that I do have the level, that I do have the potential to do something great.

“There were a couple of key moments. One key moment was in 2019 when I got injured quite badly in my shoulder, so I didn’t play for three months. And in that period something changed, because before that it had been a while before I had won a tournament.

“I didn’t play for three months, first tournament back I won it. After that period I showed myself that I really love tennis, I did it for enjoyment, not just because I had to. After that moment, I exploded.”

hitting with big-name players at the Mouratoglou Academy

Lajal currently trains at the Patrick Mouratoglou Academy in France, where he has the unique opportunity to practise with other top players he would otherwise not have contact with, something which was a big factor in his decision to travel to the academy.

Among the names he has been able to hit with is 24-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic.

“I have the ability to play with a lot of really, really top players. That has also really helped me, because I can see how they play, learn from them, play some points with them. The possibility to play with all the top players is unbelievable and really given me a lot.

“I have played with a lot of top players [at the Patrick Mouratoglou Academy]. Djokovic, Medvedev, Norrie, Ugo Humbert, Popyrin. There are many more, but from all of them I’ve learned a lot.

“I think I’ve learned the most from Daniil, because I have practised the most with him. I’ve learned it doesn’t matter how you play, but how you win. All these type of lessons have helped shape me.”

Challenging season so far for Lajal

When asked back in December about his future aims, it was revealing that Lajal already had clearly defined targets for 2024.

“I’d say a good season would be I have qualified for the main draw of a Slam, I have broken the top 100 and I have given the top guys some trouble.”

As we approach the halfway point of the year, it’s been a mixed bag for the ambitious Lajal. Injuries and some poor form have seen him stutter over the past six months.

However, he has already ticked one of those milestones off his list by qualifying for Wimbledon.

“Honestly, qualifying for Wimbledon and playing this match has been really, really good, given me a lot of confidence,” Lajal said on Sunday, ahead of his match against Alcaraz.

“It’s like a cherry on top a little bit. My season has started getting better since April. But you know, still, there’s a long, long season ahead of us. It’s only halfway. So it’s good to be doing this, but it’s only the beginning for the rest of the season.”

The Estonian is gaining confidence on grass as well, after a rocky start on the surface this year.

“I played two tournaments before on grass before Wimbledon. Two Challengers,” Lajal explained. “They didn’t go well. I was like, ‘I don’t know why I came to grass. I don’t really like it too much.’ Then I did a week of practice and I started liking it a lot. And then here I am.”

He credits practise for his improvement on grass, saying “every minute that passed I started to feel better.”

The top 100 may currently be some way away for Lajal.

But if he is able to fulfil the third target on his list and ask questions of Alcaraz during their Wimbledon 2024 Centre Court curtain-raiser, then it may not be too long before this talented youngster is surging up the rankings to his target destination.

If the ultimate aim is to be world No 1, then there is no better place to start than testing yourself against the youngest ATP No 1 in history.

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