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Carlos Alcaraz Found Revenge And Happiness In The Desert

Carlos Alcaraz smiles with Indian Wells trophy in front of mountains
John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. Prodigy has a way of warping expectations. Carlos Alcaraz is still only 20, and when he goes eight months without winning a title, it feels like something in tennis is amiss. The Spaniard last held the winner’s trophy at Wimbledon, when he was still finding his feet on grass, but absorbing wisdom at an absurd enough rate to beat the seven-time champ Novak Djokovic in a goosebump-inducing final. By any sane standard, Alcaraz has still been crushing it since that day in southwest London, having advanced to one final and four semifinals. But he has also lost to all his chief rivals—Novak Djokovic (twice), Alexander Zverev (twice), Daniil Medvedev, Jannik Sinner—which invited speculation about whether peers had begun to find the holes in his unpredictable and frequently miraculous play style. His early success owed a lot to the element of a surprise. No teenager had ever burst onto the tour playing tennis quite like his, at once destructive and delicate, but perhaps it’s possible to better sketch out a game plan for it the third time around. Add in the bad ankle roll last month in Rio, and it was unclear if Alcaraz would be up to the task of defending his title at Indian Wells, the season’s first 1000-level event.

Doubting this kid will only lead you to ruin. Carlitos showed up fresh to the desert, where he’s always thrived, and survived bees and hours of rain delay. And insofar as it is possible for someone that puppy-like to feel anything remotely like vengefulness, he got all his revenge in one tidy week. Alcaraz dispatched Zverev, who had cut short this year’s Australian Open run in the quarterfinal with a serving masterclass. Then Alcaraz took out his pal and contemporary Jannik Sinner, ending the Italian's perfect 2024 and leveling their head-to-head at four apiece. And in the final he eliminated Daniil Medvedev, who had retooled his strategy to dispatch Alcaraz in the semis at the U.S. Open last fall, but couldn’t find a way to challenge him here. Alcaraz won 7-6(5), 6-1, in conditions that perfectly suit him.

Medvedev, who has now lost to Alcaraz in two straight finals here, explained to the press that the Spaniard is immune to the troubles endemic to tennis played in desert air and on a gritty court surface. He said that even when his opponents this week served in the 130s or slugged would-be winners, the ball would have slowed down to a much more manageable speed by the time it reached him. But that doesn’t hinder the back-to-back champion, who likes the extra time to load up on his groundstrokes and can power straight through the slow conditions. “Carlos, his ball goes so fast that it goes fast from the beginning to the end,” Medvedev said. “Mentally it's not easy to play against this,” he added. “In the second set, I felt a little bit out of solutions.”

Alcaraz, too, was forced to problem-solve his way out of an early jam on Sunday. Medvedev was briefly resurgent at the start of the final after dragging himself through the semifinal against Tommy Paul, where his miserable night only turned around after Paul turned his ankle in the second set tiebreak. Medvedev broke Alcaraz on his first service game. The Russian plumbs such consistent depth with his backhands that he can modulate the speed and keep opponents guessing, all in service of locking them into metronomic backhand exchanges, the sort few can exit on their own terms and fewer can best him at. Alcaraz struggled with timing, handing Medvedev what felt like half of his points in the first set with slightly askew backhands into the net. In Medvedev's third-game hold, he won rallies of 16 and 21 shots, rallies that ended with Alcaraz blinking first. 

Being able to dance along to a song is great, but picking your own music is better. Alcaraz tightened it up, though more importantly, he stopped letting Medvedev dictate terms, hitting himself out of backhand jail, forcing Medvedev to the net, and ripping winners into the newly vacated space; the break point he won to get it to 2-3 went exactly in that order. Once Alcaraz got loose, he wasn't going to be reined in, and Medvedev knew it. "I don't think I did something too wrong," he said after the match. "It was just that he managed to raise even more his level." To Medvedev's credit, he played well enough for long enough to force some transdimensional highlights out of Alcaraz, including what was probably the point of the tournament.

Alcaraz sprinted in to retrieve a well-placed drop shot, and appeared to have Medvedev's lob covered, only for the Russian to put just enough lift on it to get past Alcaraz's leaping overhead attempt. Most players would be cooked at this point, having tried and failed to defeat gravity. But Alcaraz spun around the ball, returned it with enough depth to keep Medvedev from dunking it, recovered as Medvedev stayed at the net, and ended things with a howling forehand pass down the line. The crowd pealed in ecstatic rapture. 

For lots of men's tennis fans, the main course in Indian Wells was actually the semifinal matchup between Alcaraz and Sinner, the eighth installment of a rivalry that will someday belong in a box set. Their match was waylaid by three hours of stop-and-start rain delay—according to Alcaraz the two friends spent some of that time chatting “about life”—but it delivered on its promise once the players finally found themselves on a dry hard court. Sinner lost to Alcaraz in this stadium last year, but had beaten him in their two encounters since in Miami and Beijing; he carried that momentum into the first set, where he served majestically and gave Alcaraz no room to breathe from the baseline.

Carlitos permitted himself an uncharacteristic roar of frustration early in the second, but soon worked his way back into the match, chiefly by starting to do Carlitos Shit: rejecting the rigid confines of baseline exchanges and instead getting himself into very odd pickles while scrambling around all four corners of the court. He always thrives off that process of invention, and the frenzied response it inevitably calls forth from the crowd. What’s lovely about this rivalry is how gamely Jannik Sinner meets Alcaraz's challenge, showcasing his own outrageous movement and power. Sinner the cool technician is infected by his pal’s sense of spontaneity. They glide around the court like air hockey pucks, as if unhampered by gravity or air resistance. It’s all so much fun they wind up smiling before the last ball has even bounced twice.

After the match ratcheted up into a suitably psychedelic register, Alcaraz claimed set two for himself. The tension only broke at 1-1 in the third, when Sinner took a bad tumble at the conclusion of another spectacular point. Alcaraz was concerned enough for his opponent that he didn’t even celebrate the break of serve, and Sinner came up in visible pain. The Italian spent the rest of the match probing his right elbow and left wrist, which bore the brunt of his fall. He never found the same level from pre-fall, and Carlitos ran away with the third. After the loss Sinner entered the press room unusually lighthearted and willing to riff; players often open up like this once the weight of a monstrous winning streak has been removed. He said, with a smile, that he hurt all over, and that the elbow pain specifically made it harder to serve. He also said that every match against Carlitos is a test of how much he’s progressed since their last duel. Sinner has made huge strides in that span—winning a major and beating Djokovic twice—but felt he didn’t mix it up enough to trouble the dynamic foe: “I was too predictable at some points. I think that's the lesson for today.” Hard for the layman to refer to any match containing the below points "predictable," but we take his point.

Unlike the two men who followed him, Alexander Zverev didn't quite have enough fight to force Alcaraz to invent new possibilities; the defining highlight of their quarterfinal match would work as well in a JPEG as it would a video, as it is Zverev standing still and choosing not to sprint after a handful of perfect drop shots. Zverev, perhaps rattled by the delay caused by 2,500 to 3,000 bees, could scarcely trouble Alcaraz or deal with his multiflorous offense and venomous serve, and he quickly fell, 6-3, 6-1, while Alcaraz was having joyful interactions with fans. That scoreline is a mirror of the first two sets that these two played the last time they met, when Zverev torched Alcaraz in the Australian Open quarterfinals. Beating the best players on the tour is always satisfying, yet avenging that defeat in such style, is the best tonic. As he said after the Zverev win, “My best level shows up when I'm smiling, when I sometimes stay away from 100 percent focusing on the match. Probably watching some of the crowd, you know, dancing or some funny faces or funny things that help me a lot to put a smile on my face and enjoy my time on the court."

Alcaraz recovered a crucial old feeling in the desert. "Let's say the last two months it was difficult for me to find myself,” he said after the final. “I wasn't myself on the court the last two months. For me, if I win tournaments or not, I don't care. It's about enjoying playing tennis. That's why I'm really, really happy to lift this trophy, because I found myself at this tournament, and I felt really, really good.” As if to demonstrate his new level of equanimity and calm, Carlitos then gave long, detailed answers to several questions while a strobe light flashed and an emergency alarm blared at ear-splitting volume in the press room. He smiled through it all.

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