Alcaraz is back to winning titles, and smiling | Tennis News - Hindustan Times

Alcaraz is back to winning titles, and smiling

ByRutvick Mehta
Mar 18, 2024 06:33 PM IST

Exactly eight months since the high of becoming a Wimbledon champion, the Spaniard has finally managed to win another trophy by defending the Indian Wells Masters crown

Never mind the buzzing bees, Carlos Alcaraz is back to his bossing and smiling self in tournaments. Exactly eight months since the high of becoming a Wimbledon champion that was soon followed by the lull of battling physical and emotional setbacks, the Spaniard returned to his big-stage winning ways while defending the Indian Wells Masters crown. The 20-year-old beat Daniil Medvedev 7-6(5), 6-1 in a repeat of the 2023 final but in a build-up that couldn’t be more dissimilar.

Carlos Alcaraz of Spain celebrates match point against Daniil Medvedev in the men's final during the Indian Wells Tennis on March 17. (AFP)
Carlos Alcaraz of Spain celebrates match point against Daniil Medvedev in the men's final during the Indian Wells Tennis on March 17. (AFP)

Alcaraz, then a freshly-brewed US Open champion in his teens, came into the 2023 Indian Wells with two titles and zero defeats at the start of the season. The Spaniard would continue to be hot in the Californian desert, blazing through without dropping a set and taking down Jannik Sinner in the semi-final and Medvedev in the final.

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Alcaraz, now a two-time Grand Slam champion after his incredible Wimbledon final triumph over Djokovic, came into the 2024 Indian Wells with a quarter-final exit at the Australian Open, a semi-final shock loss to Nicolas Jarry at the ATP 250 Buenos Aires and a first-round retirement due to a twisted ankle at the ATP 500 Rio.

Carrying the extra baggage of uncertainty around his ankle, level of play and belief in mind, Alcaraz grew in all those aspects with every match over the last couple of weeks. No human (or a swarm of bees that briefly swept him off court) could stop him then. Not Alexander Zverev, his Australian Open conqueror; not Sinner, the Australian Open champion who was 19-0 this year; not Medvedev, the Australian Open finalist and a self-proclaimed hard-court specialist.

No one other than Boris Becker has won back-to-back men’s singles Indian Wells titles before turning 21, according to OptaAce. It’s with such greats of the game that Alcaraz often gets compared with and measured against in terms of achievements. And so when he goes through a phase where his low returns do not match lofty expectations, questions do arise. Not least from within.

“It means a lot to me, lifting this trophy because I overcome a lot of problems in my head, a lot of problems physically,” Alcaraz said after the title win. “I had really difficult months. Let’s say the last two months, it was difficult for me to find myself. I didn’t enjoy stepping on the court. I wasn’t myself on the court the last two months, three months.”

Alcaraz is never too far away from a smile, even amid the heat of the battle in the most high-pressure moments. And yet the images that defined Alcaraz’s last few months were of him sobbing profusely after losing the Cincinnati Masters final to Djokovic in August last year, or of him sitting resigned on his chair, head dropped and face covered, while his ankle was being attended to at the Rio Open last month.

“I was struggling to enjoy being on the court. My family, my team, people close to me were telling me that I was not smiling as much as I was doing before,” he said.

Cut to the second set of his semi-final against Sinner and when Alcaraz lost a mesmerising drop and net duel between two artists at work, he smiled. And then, he won — the match and the tournament.

That was still the farthest thing in his mind when he came to Indian Wells after an ankle sprain that forced him to retire from his opening-round match in Rio three weeks ago. His first practice session at Indian Wells lasted just 30 minutes, he said, “with no movement”. He wasn’t going to be able to play his best tennis here, “or so I thought”.

“I was not feeling well with my ankle, so I had a lot of doubts,” he said. “But once I stepped on the court, the first round, I started to feel better.”

Alcaraz starting to feel better — mentally, physically and with his game — could make add a fresh dimension to the men’s tour deeper into the season with the French Open, Wimbledon and Paris Olympics stacked up from May-July. Djokovic, yet to win a title this year, will know a confident Alcaraz is quite a handful on any surface. So will Sinner, by far the best player of the season so far. So will Rafael Nadal, if and when he comes back to do his thing on clay.

“A lot,” Alcaraz said when asked how much self-belief the Indian Wells title gives him. “Obviously winning a Masters 1000 again — it is a really difficult tournament to win — gives you extra motivation to keep going, extra confidence for Miami (Masters) right now and for what’s next.”

For now, Alcaraz is happy to be back winning. And smiling. “That’s why I’m really, really happy to lift this trophy, because I found myself at this tournament.”

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