Carlos Alcaraz took some time to rest after coming up short in the French Open last month, and then he began the next step in strengthening one of the few remaining weaknesses in his tennis development – playing on grass.
For Alcaraz, the 20-year-old world No. 1, that meant getting enough training sessions and matches on the surface, which is at once the most traditional and strangest in the sport. It also meant hours of watching videos of Andy Murray, the two-time champion of Wimbledon and one of the masters of lawn tennis.
On a rainy day that led to the cancellation or suspension of nearly every match not contested on the two covered courts at the All England Club, Alcaraz showed his homework had paid off, and Murray provided the young Spaniard with a fresh set of study material. .
Alcaraz never made it past the round of 16 at Wimbledon, but he left no doubt about his goals for his third round at this most revered of tennis competitions.
“To win the tournament,” he said after the 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 hammering he handed France’s Jeremy Chardy. “I have a lot of confidence now.”
An afternoon game against Chardy, who announced that he planned to retire after this tournament, will definitely help with that. There was little chance that Chardy would provide much of a challenge for Alcaraz at 36, ranked 542 in the world, and with just one tour-level win this year.
But for Alcaraz, who grew up mostly playing on red clay, the value of the day came not from the difficulty of his opponent. It came from spending more time on the sport’s most attractive surface. With every match at Wimbledon, Alcaraz gets closer to the inevitable – when the most talented young player becomes as good on grass as he is everywhere else.
This is where watching Murray videos comes in. Alcaraz knows how to hit a tennis ball as well and as hard as anyone, and his drop shot is as good as it gets on clay and hard courts. He is also almost the fastest player in the game, especially on clay and hard courts. But he said he has to learn how to adapt his speed and his repertoire of shots to the grass.
Few players have shown how to do that better than Murray, who won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 2013 and 2016, and showed why on Tuesday afternoon in his 6-3, 6-0, 6-1 dismantling of Ryan Peniston, dude. British
There are others who have conquered grass, of course, namely Roger Federer, who won a record eight men’s singles titles at Wimbledon and spent the afternoon quietly chatting in the front row of the royal box with Catherine, Princess of Wales, after he was feted. with video and standing ovation. Alcaraz also studied his matches.
And then there’s Novak Djokovic, who has won the last four singles titles here, seven in total, and is on a 29-match Wimbledon winning streak. The problem with studying Djokovic is that he moves differently than everyone else on grass.
Djokovic somehow figured out how to slide and slide as if he were on clay or hard court. When others try to play this way, they often end up on their backs or with a strained groin. It’s a style of lawn tennis that should come with a “don’t try this” warning.
Alcaraz did not. Not on the way to the title on the grass setting at Queen’s Club two weeks ago, or against Chardy on Tuesday, when he showed plenty of signs of his Murray/Federer imitation game.
Alcaraz took balls a little earlier, a necessary move because they hardly bounce on grass. He decelerated and turned in a series of quick stuttering steps instead of his usual lightning-quick plant-and-pivot. He showed his improving serve, launching 10 aces, with many of them sliding off the court, including a final on match point into the deep-wide corner of the service box that slipped off the court before Chardy could move for it.
“Every time I go out on the court playing, it’s better for me,” he said when it was over. “I’m getting more experience, which is really, really important on that surface.”
Murray is not short of experience on grass and has almost always looked comfortable at the All England Club, making the third round on his main draw debut in 2005 when he was just 18 years old. Tuesday’s win over Peniston provided plenty of grass study tips.
Alcaraz often talks about how he starts every match wanting to play aggressively. Murray showed that on grass, aggression can take many forms beyond the crushing forehands of Alcaraz.
He played blocked backhand returns of a serve that died in the front of the court to set up passing shots and sent drop volleys almost sideways. In some rallies he produced a series of shots that passed closer and closer to the top of the net, and slid lower and lower as they landed on the grass. One passing shot while Peniston was at the net bounced to his feet like it fell off a table as soon as it went over the tape. It was all over in two hours and 1 minute, one of Murray’s easier days on Center Court, although he admitted to feeling nervous early on.
“I like to feel that way,” he said, “If I went on the court and felt flat, didn’t have any emotion when I walk out there, that’s something that would probably be a little wrong.”
When Peniston made his final mistake, Murray celebrated with the tiniest of fist pumps and a short wave to the crowd.
He noted that the last time Federer watched him on Center Court was in the final of the 2012 Olympics, when Federer cheered on his compatriot and Murray’s opponent that day, Stan Wawrinka.
“I was happy to get some applause today,” Murray said.
Murray skipped the French Open to begin his preparations for Wimbledon, the tournament he believes offers him the best chance to play the second week.
Those chances likely improved on Tuesday when the match between his potential opponents, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem, was suspended shortly after Thiem won the first set. They are likely to resume on Wednesday, with the winner facing Murray, almost certainly on Center Court, on Thursday.
Murray said he doesn’t study draws, preferring instead to focus solely on his next match rather than waste time on hypotheticals. If so, he would find a potential opponent in the semi-finals who would know his tricks.
That would be Alcaraz.