Carlos Alcaraz took some time to rest after coming up short at the French Open last month, then tackled the next step towards strengthening one of the few remaining weaknesses in his tennis development – playing on grass.
For Alcaraz, the 20-year-old world No. 1, that meant getting enough training sessions and matches on the surface that is at once the most traditional and lopsided in the sport. It also meant hours of watching videos of Andy Murray, the two-time Wimbledon champion and one of the masters of grass court tennis.
On a day of rain that caused the cancellation or suspension of nearly every match not contested on the two covered courts at the All England Club, Alcaraz showed his homework paid off and Murray provided the young Spaniard with a new lot of study material.
Alcaraz has never progressed past the round of 16 at Wimbledon, but he has left no doubt about his goals for his third round at tennis’ most revered competition.
“To win the tournament,” he said after the 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 thrashing of Jeremy Chardy of France. “I have a lot of confidence right now.”
An afternoon of play against Chardy, who had announced he planned to retire after this tournament, was sure to help with that. There was little chance Chardy would mount a major challenge to Alcaraz at 36, ranked No. 542 in the world and with just one win at tour level this year.
But for Alcaraz, who grew up playing on red clay, the value of the day did not come from the difficulty of the opponent. It came from spending more time on the sport’s most seductive surface. With each match at Wimbledon, Alcaraz gets closer to the inevitable – when the most talented young player will be as good on grass as he is anywhere else.
This is where watching videos of Murray comes into play. Alcaraz knows how to hit a tennis ball as well and as hard as anyone, and his drop shot is as good as it gets on clay and hard courts. He is also almost the fastest player in the game, especially on clay and hard courts. But he has said he needs to learn to adapt his speed and his repertoire of shots to the grass.
Few players have shown how to do it better than Murray, who won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 2013 and 2016, and showed why on Tuesday afternoon in his 6-3, 6-0, 6-1 dismantling of Ryan Peniston, a guy . British.
There are others, of course, who have conquered grass, namely Roger Federer, who won a record eight men’s singles titles at Wimbledon and spent the afternoon chatting quietly in the front row of the royal box with Catherine, Princess of Wales, after he was feted. with a video and a standing ovation. Alcaraz has also studied his fights.
And then there’s Novak Djokovic, who has won the last four singles titles here, seven in total, and is on a 29-match Wimbledon winning streak. The problem with studying Djokovic is that he moves differently than everyone else on grass.
Djokovic has somehow figured out how to slip and slide as if he were on clay or a hard court. When others try to play that way, they often end up on the back or with a strained groin. It’s a style of grass court tennis that should come with a “don’t try this” warning.
Alcaraz did not. Not on the way to the grass court title at Queen’s Club two weeks ago, or against Chardy on Tuesday when he showed plenty of signs of his Murray/Federer imitation game.
Alcaraz took the ball a bit earlier, a necessary move as they barely bounce on the grass. He braked and turned with a series of quick trunk steps instead of his usual lightning-quick plant-and-turn. Showing off his improved serve, he fired 10 aces, many of which slipped out of bounds, including a final one on match point into the deep wide corner of the service box that slipped out of bounds before Chardy could move for it.
“Every time I get on the field and play, it’s better for me,” he said when it was over. “I’m getting more experience, which is really, really important on that surface.”
Murray is not short of experience on grass and has almost always looked at home at the All England Club, making the third round on his main draw debut in 2005 aged just 18. Tuesday’s win over Peniston provided plenty of tips for turf studies.
Alcaraz often talks about how he starts every game wanting to play aggressively. Murray showed that on grass, aggression can take many forms beyond Alcaraz’s crushing forehand.
He played blocked backhand returns of the serve that died at the front of the court to set up passing shots and sent drop volleys almost sideways. In some events, he produced a series of shots that passed ever closer to the top of the net, sliding ever lower as they landed on the grass. A pass shot while Peniston was at the net bounced toward his feet like it was falling off a table as soon as it passed over the tape. It was all over in two hours and 1 minute, one of Murray’s easier days on Center Court, although he admitted to feeling nervous early on.
“I like feeling that way,” he said.
When Peniston committed his final error, Murray celebrated with the tiniest of fist pumps and a brief wave to the crowd.
He noted that the last time Federer had seen him on Center Court was in the final at the 2012 Olympics, when Federer cheered on his compatriot and Murray’s opponent that day, Stan Wawrinka.
“I was happy to get a few claps today,” Murray said.
Murray skipped the French Open to begin his preparations for Wimbledon, the tournament he believes gives him the best chance to play into the second week.
Those chances were likely to improve on Tuesday when the match between his potential opponents, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem, was suspended shortly after Thiem won the first set. They are likely to resume on Wednesday, with the winner taking on Murray, almost certainly on Center Court, on Thursday.
Murray said he doesn’t study draws, preferring instead to focus only on his next match rather than waste time on hypotheticals. If he did, he would find a potential opponent in the semifinals who would be familiar with his tricks.
That would be Alcaraz.