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Carlos Alcaraz Is Back, But Only On One Leg

Carlos Alcaraz hits a shot
Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

If this past Australian Open was bland on the men's side, that's because eventual champion Novak Djokovic was scarcely tested, except by his own leg. One of the few players who could have knitted Djokovic's brow was absent from the draw.

Carlos Alcaraz wound down 2022 in spectacular fashion, winning the U.S. Open and becoming No. 1 in the world, but the teen was forced to withdraw from 2023's first major with a leg injury. "When I was at my best in preseason, I picked up an injury through a chance, unnatural movement in training," Alcaraz wrote. "This time it's the semimembranosus muscle in my right leg." That's one of the three muscles that comprise the hamstring; I appreciate the specificity. Djokovic won the Open with ease, and wrenched back the No. 1 ranking, which, as of this week, he has now held longer than any player in history, male or female.

February is an odd month on the tennis calendar. It's a post-Australia hangover, an eclectic smattering of smallish events that offer quick reps before the big hard court tournaments kick off in March. There's a brief clay stint stashed away in South America, and that is where Carlitos chose to return to competition. In Buenos Aires, his first tournament in over three months, Alcaraz picked up right where he left off—steamrolling everybody. He won the title there, too rickety to bring his best stuff, but also too talented for that to interfere with the results.

Being too good at tennis ensures that you won't get much rest from tennis. After winning in Buenos Aires, Alcaraz zipped straight to Rio de Janeiro, where he fended off tougher competition—Fabio Fognini and Nicolás Jarry both grilled him before sputtering out in third sets—and extended his win streak to eight. Sunday's Rio final, a rematch against Buenos Aires finalist Cam Norrie, was for both men the ninth match in 11 days.

That Rio final turned on a pivot. Alcaraz, imperfect but nevertheless feeling good enough to bop in his seat, led this match 7-5, 3-0, and 0-30 on return. That's when Norrie flipped it around, aided by his foe's physical decline. During the second set, Alcaraz called out the physiotherapist to have his right thigh wrapped, but he remained a step slow. His team seemed to be calling for him to retire. Alcaraz instead stuck around and redlined: drop shots, huge cuts, even an underarm serve (that Norrie smacked for a winner). At his peerless skill level, go-for-broke tennis can produce some gems...

...but even this teen genius could not grit out an ATP 500 final on one leg against the No. 13 player in the world. He lost, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5. Norrie, who upset Alcaraz in Cincinnati last summer, can now boast a respectable 2-4 record against a guy he'll be seeing an unpleasant amount of in the years to come.

"It's really tough to know right now," Alcaraz said after the Rio loss. "It's tough to feel some pain in the same muscle that you had an injury [to] a couple months ago. I'm gonna take care about it with my doctor, with my physio, evaluate it ... I really like Acapulco, I really want to go there and play in front of the Mexico fans. But healthy counts first."

Alcaraz withdrew from Acapulco on Tuesday, citing a grade 1 hamstring strain— again with the specificity. He has an intimidating chunk of ranking points to defend in the coming weeks. This was the stretch of the calendar when he blew up last season: winning in Rio, making the semifinals at Indian Wells, then winning in Miami, Barcelona, and Madrid. It would be preferable to live in a universe where Carlos Alcaraz never got hurt. But managing injury and fatigue is arguably his most important project in the decades to come. He has the tennis pretty much down pat, by age 19 (must be nice). Now it's time to listen to what his body is telling him.

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