Carlos Alcaraz took some rest after falling short at the French Open last month, then took the next step to strengthen one of the few remaining weaknesses in his tennis development – playing on grass.
For Alcaraz, the 20-year-old world no. That included hours of watching videos of Andy Murray, two-time Wimbledon champion and one of lawn tennis’s champions.
On a rainy day that resulted in nearly every game not played in the All England Club’s two covered pitches being canceled or suspended, Alcaraz showed his homework was paying off and Murray provided the young Spaniard with fresh study material .
Alcaraz never got past the round of 16 at Wimbledon, but he has left no doubt about his goals for his third round at the most revered tennis competition.
“To win the tournament,” he said after beating France’s Jeremy Chardy 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. “I have a lot of confidence at the moment.”
A game afternoon against Chardy, who had announced that he wanted to retire after this tournament, would certainly help. There was little chance that Chardy Alcaraz at the age of 36, ranked No. 542 in the world and with just one Tour-level win this year would pose a major challenge.
But for Alcaraz, who grew up mostly on red clay, the value of the day wasn’t his opponent’s difficulty. This came about as I spent more time on the sport’s most enticing surface. With every game at Wimbledon, Alcaraz gets closer to the inevitable – when the most talented young player becomes as good on grass as anywhere else.
This is where watching videos of Murray comes in. Alcaraz knows how to hit a tennis ball just as well and hard as anyone and his drop shot is better than ever on clay and hard courts. He’s also pretty much the fastest player in the game, especially on clay and hard courts. But he said he must learn to adapt his speed and shot repertoire to the turf.
Few players have shown how it’s done better than Murray, who won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 2013 and 2016 and showed why on Tuesday afternoon when he defeated fellow Ryan Peniston 6-3, 6-0, 6: 1 British dismantled.
There are of course others who have taken the turf, namely Roger Federer, who won a record eight men’s singles titles at Wimbledon and spent the afternoon chatting quietly with Catherine, Princess of Wales, in the front row of the royal box , after being celebrated with a video and a 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 has a 29-game Wimbledon winning streak to his name. The problem with studying Djokovic is that he moves differently on grass than everyone else.
Djokovic somehow managed 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 butts or have a tight groin area. It’s a type of lawn tennis that should come with a ‘don’t try’ warning.
Alcaraz didn’t. Neither en route to the Queen’s Club grass title title two weeks ago nor against Chardy on Tuesday when he showed numerous signs of his Murray/Federer imitation game.
Alcaraz accepted the balls a little earlier, which was necessary as they hardly bounced off the pitch. He slowed and turned in a series of quick, stuttering steps instead of his usual lightning-fast touchdown and turn. He showed he kept getting better at serve, firing ten aces, many of which slipped off the court, including a final one on match point in the far corner of the service area, which slid off the court before Chardy could tackle it.
“Every time I go out on the pitch to play, it’s better for me,” he said when it was over. “I’m gaining more experience, which is really, really important on this surface.”
Murray has no lack of experience on grass and has almost always felt comfortable at the All England Club, reaching the third round on his debut in the main draw in 2005 when he was just 18 years old. Tuesday’s victory over Peniston provided plenty of tips for lawn training.
Alcaraz often talks about wanting to play aggressively at the start of every game. Murray has shown that aggression on grass can take many forms beyond Alcaraz’s crushing forehand.
He played blocked backhand returns of serve that ended in front of the court to allow for passing shots and sent drop volleys almost sideways. On some rallies, he would execute a series of shots that skirted the top of the net and slid lower as they landed on the grass. A pass shot while Peniston was at the net shot to his feet as if falling off a table as soon as he flew over the tape. It was all over in two hours and a minute, one of Murray’s easier days on center court, although he admitted to being nervous early on.
“I like feeling that way,” he said. “If I walked onto the pitch and felt flat and had no emotion walking out, there would probably be something wrong.”
As Peniston made his final mistake, Murray celebrated with light punches and a quick wave at the crowd.
He noted that Federer had last seen him on Center Court in the 2012 Olympics final, when Federer was cheering on his compatriot and Murray’s opponent of the day, Stan Wawrinka.
“I was happy to get some applause today,” Murray said.
Murray skipped the French Open to start preparing for Wimbledon, the tournament he believes will give him the best chance of playing in week two.
Those odds are likely to have improved on Tuesday when play between his potential opponents Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem was halted shortly after Thiem won the first set. They are likely to continue on Wednesday, with the winner set to take on Murray on Center Court on Thursday.
Murray said he doesn’t bother with draws, preferring to just focus on his next game rather than wasting time on hypotheses. If he did, he would find a potential opponent in the semifinals who would be familiar with his tricks.
That would be Alcaraz.