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Alcaraz aims to overcome starting troubles


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The first sighting of Carlos Alcaraz in a tennis match this year was on Wednesday, when he played (and lost to) Alex de Minaur in a pre-Australian Open exhibition tie in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena. This came a couple of weeks after the young Spaniard turned up for another exhibition in Riyadh with Novak Djokovic, who had sent him packing from the semi-finals of the ATP Finals to end his 2023 season.

Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz plays a forehand return during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships at Melbourne Park(AP)

While most of the world’s top players scatter around Australia at the start of a fresh season to compete in tournaments tuning up for the Australian Open, world No. 2 Alcaraz has been an exhibition-friendly exception.

Consider this in the backdrop of the 2022 US Open champion missing the season-opening Slam last year due to a hamstring injury and going off the boil post the 2023 Wimbledon triumph, and it adds layers to the air of unknown around Alcaraz entering the 2024 Australian Open.

Especially given that world tennis’ latest male sensation hasn’t yet got the feel for the Australian Open like he has for the other Slams. The two-time Grand Slam champion, who has won in New York and London and reached the semi-finals in Paris, hasn’t made it to the second week in Melbourne so far. A second-round exit in 2021 followed by a third-round ouster in 2022 (he lost in a fifth-set tiebreak to Matteo Berrettini) is a muted record in the 20-year-old’s otherwise meteoric rise.

Season-starting issues aside, it’s the back end of the 2023 season that compelled Alcaraz to introspect. To be clear, the youngster had the kind of year that even the most seasoned of pros can only still dream about. Six titles, including his second major at Wimbledon outbattling 24-time Slam champion Djokovic in an epic final; a Grand Slam win percentage of 89.5, bettered only by Rafael Nadal in a calendar year among players below 21; a taste of being the world’s top-ranked player; a win-loss record of 65-12.

The win-loss count, however, would have been greater had Alcaraz not tailed off after his Wimbledon high. All his six title victories came in the year’s first seven months, after which he made just one final in seven tournaments.

In his first outing since becoming a Wimbledon champion, Alcaraz lost to Tommy Paul in the quarter-finals of Toronto Masters. Defeats to Djokovic (Cincinnati final), Daniil Medvedev (US Open semi-final) and Jannik Sinner (Beijing semi-final) — three of his biggest rivals on the tour last year — followed. And then the two shockers: Grigor Dimitrov in the Round of 16 of Shanghai Masters and Russian Roman Safiullin in the second round of Paris Masters. By the time Alcaraz arrived in Turin for the season-ending ATP Finals, he appeared spent. His quiet semi-final defeat there, thus, was hardly a surprise.

In an interview to ATP last year, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Alcaraz’s coach, admitted the player’s level dropped a bit after the US Open. The Spanish former world No. 1, while stating that it is natural for a 20-year-old, added that they need to improve in his “game and psychology” and focus “more on being professional all the time”.

Alcaraz, the kid-turned-man whose coming-of-age has been swift, concurred. “Maybe I struggled to handle the last part of the season,” he said last year. “As I said, I have so many things to improve on, and that’s one of them. Learning that a tennis player’s season doesn’t end in June, August and September, it carries on until November.”

We’re still in January of the new season, where Alcaraz hasn’t tasted too much success in the past. There’s no reason though that he shouldn’t fly high Down Under as well. Alcaraz has won the other big outdoor hard-court titles — US Open (2022), Miami Masters (2022) and Indian Wells (2023) — and has only grown in his tennis, mind and stature since he last set foot at the Australian Open as a 31st-ranked teen.

He walks into this edition as a two-time Grand Slam winner and a former world No. 1 with a proven pedigree of carrying a champion mentality and game. With a touch of intrigue to go.

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