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    At the French Open, Novak Djokovic Aims for His 21st Slam Win

    The world No. 1 seemed poised to set the men’s record for major titles. Now, after a crushing loss and a vaccine controversy, Djokovic looks to get back on course at the French Open.Novak Djokovic has been here before, nipping at the heels of major title No. 21.He had a chance at the U.S. Open last summer. Winning the men’s singles final against Daniil Medvedev would have been a signal moment in sports. Djokovic would have burst through the logjam he’d shared with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: 20 titles in majors, then the high-water mark in men’s tennis.And Djokovic would have become the first male player since Rod Laver in 1969 to achieve a Grand Slam, capturing Wimbledon and the French, Australian and U.S. Open titles in the same year.It wasn’t to be.Then he seemed destined to record his 21st victory in a Grand Slam event at this year’s Australian Open, the major where he has emerged victorious nine times. He makes playing in the Melbourne hothouse look like a stroll through a shady summer garden.But we know what happened instead.Djokovic was detained and then deported after a tense standoff over whether he should be allowed to compete in Australia despite having proudly refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.Novak Djokovic walking in Melbourne Airport in January, after his visa to play in the Australian Open was canceled.Loren Elliott/ReutersPoint made and the moment lost by both the Australian government and one of the world’s best-known anti-vaccine athletes.With the French Open underway, Djokovic is, at long last, trying again for his 21st major win. By virtue of his No. 1 ranking, he is the top seed in the men’s draw. “I’m going to Paris with confidence and good feelings about my chances there,” he said before the tournament.He said much the same the last two times he reached for the grail of 21 Grand Slam events. But it was Nadal who notched that historic record first, ahead of Djokovic and Federer, when Nadal stepped back into the vaults of greatness and beat Medvedev at the Australian Open in jaw-dropping fashion.Can Djokovic get out of the stall and tie Nadal? If he doesn’t do it soon he may begin drawing comparisons with an equally talented, complex and perplexing champion — Serena Williams, who remains stuck one major behind Margaret Court’s record mark of 24.Like Williams, who at 40 is not playing on the tour and may be heading toward retirement, Djokovic faces snarling pressure to keep up with his peers. It is not getting any easier. On Sunday, he turned 35. His window is closing — the ability to call on match-to-match consistency narrows with each grinding season.Consider all he has faced this year. Global anger over his determination to steer clear of vaccination. The hangover from the crushing loss in the final of the U.S. Open. The months when he looked like a meager facsimile of his old self on the tennis court.After Australia, he was barred from playing in two big hardcourt tournaments, in Indian Wells and Miami, because the United States wisely required foreign visitors to be vaccinated to enter the country. Then came a stretch of choppy, angst-riddled play, which we had not seen from him in years. There were early-round defeats to the 123rd and 46th players in the world. Before adoring hometown fans, he struggled through the Serbia Open and crumbled in the finals. He fell in Madrid to the 19-year-old Spanish upstart Carlos Alcaraz.Can Djokovic win his 21st at the French Open? There was little hint he would be up to the task until this month in Rome, at the last big tuneup before Roland Garros.In Rome, it was all there again for Djokovic: lithe, deep and consistent returns, a pickpocket’s moxie during the tensest moments. Djokovic did not lose a set all tournament. In the final, where he defeated fourth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, he took the opening stanza, 6-0.Djokovic returned to form, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Italian Open final two weeks ago.Julian Finney/Getty ImagesHe looked back on Australia and the brutal aftermath in a news conference and spoke of how the experience would not bow him. Djokovic promised to turn the jagged pain of having been barred from play and the pressure he felt from the backlash to his favor. “It will fuel me,” he said, steely eyed, “for the next challenge.”Such a mind-set is as vintage Djokovic as his scythe-like down-the-line backhand.Left unmentioned was how he has been hailed a hero among the anti-vaccine crowd for his refusenik stance, a view that is impossible to fathom when the coronavirus has caused the death of at least six million people across the globe. He has even vowed that if it came between choosing whether to be vaccinated or keep playing professional tennis, he would remain on the sideline.His commitment to that stance is foolish, but his resistance offers a window into what makes Djokovic tick. Enduring stubbornness sets him apart more than his movement, consistency or dart-like accuracy.He is a true believer — on the court and off it — and he has long latched himself to some of the self-help movement’s wildest false claims, everything from telepathy to the notion that loving thoughts can change the molecular structure of water.Now you might think those ideas are pretty ridiculous. I sure do. But for Djokovic, clinging to belief in what may seem impossible has worked in astonishing ways.We’ve seen it countless times on the biggest stages.Remember his great escapes against Federer. The victories after facing two match points against Federer’s serve at the U.S. Open in 2010 and 2011. The marathon final win at Wimbledon in 2019, when he turned Federer away after the grass-court master held yet another pair of match points.Djokovic’s relentless belief in himself helped power some of his greatest victories, as in the 2019 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, right.Nic Bothma/EPA, via ShutterstockI was there and can still hear the frenzied Centre Court crowd yelling, “Federer! Federer! Federer!” ringing in my ears. But that’s not what Djokovic heard. He said after the match that as the roars rose like a storm for his opponent, he mentally converted the rhythmic chants to something that spurred him on — “Novak! Novak! Novak!”Remember, too, the French Open of 2021, the bruising semifinal win against Nadal, the most recent act in the duo’s 58-match rivalry. The Serb followed that with a comeback from two sets down against Tsitsipas to win the championship.Now the French Open is again underway. Victory at Roland Garros is as intense a journey as exists in sports — especially now, as players deploy a mix of power, touch, bounding topspin and athleticism in ways that not long ago would have been unimaginable.Age and years of leg-churning wear on tour add another layer of difficulty. Look at Nadal, also 35 and currently battling foot and rib injuries severe enough to stir rumors of imminent retirement.These two will again try to fend off a cast of younger stars in Paris. They will have eyes steady on one in particular: Alcaraz, who plays with the limitless élan of a teen and a veteran’s wisdom and strength.All three are in the same half of the draw in Paris, bidding for a spot in the finals. Can Djokovic make it that far and finally win No. 21? I won’t bet against a player so capable of conjuring unshakable magic. More

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    Felix Auger-Aliassime Seeks Major Success at the French Open

    For years, tennis experts have heralded the promise of Auger-Aliassime, a young Canadian. But can he reach the top in the era of Carlos Alcaraz?PARIS — Before there was Carlos, there was Félix.It is not so easy to recall now, through the haze of the pandemic and the aftershocks of Carlos Alcaraz’s meteoric impact on tennis of late. But there was a time, beginning in roughly 2015, that the tennis cognoscenti raved about a young Canadian named Félix Auger-Aliassime, calling him a potential heir to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.After a quality start to the year but a rocky late winter and spring for Auger-Aliassime, that concept never felt farther away than during his first two sets of the French Open on Sunday. Auger-Aliassime came out flat and wild for the first men’s match on the main stadium court. For 88 minutes he was lost against little-known Juan Pablo Varillas of Peru, 25, who is ranked 122nd and had his opponent complaining to himself and anyone else who would listen.Then, with a few flicks of his forehand, a few blasted serves and some deft drop shots, Auger-Aliassime was back, displaying his unique mix of power, precision, touch and speed. He prevailed, 2-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, in a 3-hour-14-minute scare that made for a very Félix-like afternoon.Auger-Aliassime made the final of the Roland Garros junior tournament in 2016, at age 15, and then won the U.S. Open boys’ title later that year. He was 6 feet 2 inches (on his way to 6-4), with long arms and fast feet. He could switch directions like a wide receiver. He had broad shoulders that left plenty of room for his torso to fill out and add even more power.He was also polite and courtly, approaching the game with a humility that coaches said drove him to train hard every day. Watching him play a match in his teenage years, Gastão Elias, a longtime Portuguese pro, said Auger-Aliassime “has been an adult since he was 12.”Auger-Aliassime may one day fulfill all the promise of his teenage years. He is just 21, ranked ninth in the world and the youngest member of the top 10 not named Alcaraz. But if he does, the journey will have involved plenty of fits and starts, including losses in his first eight finals and other moments when he seemed about to take off only to fall flat.“The toughest part is always what’s ahead of you, isn’t it?” Auger-Aliassime said. “What you haven’t done before.”Denis Balibouse/ReutersAnd now, as he strives to reach the level of the Big Three — along with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and so many others — there is Alcaraz to contend with, a 19-year-old charging from the rear, piling up trophies and wins against the game’s greats and making that last, hardest step look easy. In mere months, Alcaraz has changed the calculus for all the 20-somethings, though Auger-Aliassime’s bigger problem of late is inconsistency, not Alcaraz.“Before, it was just Nadal and Federer and Djokovic,” said Louis Borfiga, a longtime French tennis teacher and the architect of Canada’s modern tennis development machine. “Now there is an incredible player coming. He has to work very hard, and he has to stay positive, to believe in himself and his game.”Auger-Aliassime has no illusions about the difficulty of the next step.“The toughest part is always what’s ahead of you, isn’t it?” he said one afternoon last month in Portugal, before being upset in a quarterfinal at a small tournament in which he was the top seed. “What you haven’t done before.”If he can take the final step, Auger-Aliassime could be the sport’s perfect celebrity, a multiracial star with roots on three continents. He grew up in the largely French-speaking province of Quebec, the son of an immigrant from Togo, where he donates hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to children’s causes.He has since moved to Monaco and spends plenty of time in France and Spain, making him a new favorite in Europe.“Allez Félix!” the fans yelled on Sunday as he tried to come back in his match.And the proximity of his childhood to New York, among his other attributes, has endeared him to the U.S. Open crowd, earning him an invitation to last year’s Met Gala, where he wore a white dinner jacket on the red carpet.“We still have borders, but I consider myself a citizen of the world,” he said.Auger-Aliassime was as good as anyone in the world in the first six weeks of the year, leading Canada to the championship of the ATP Cup, getting to match point against Daniil Medvedev (the eventual finalist) in the Australian Open quarters, then seemingly breaking through by winning the Rotterdam Open, his first title.Auger-Aliassime playing Medvedev in an Australian Open quarterfinal match in January. He had a match point but eventually lost.Morgan Sette/ReutersNadal and Federer are invested in his success. Auger-Aliassime occasionally trains at Nadal’s academy in Majorca, working with Nadal’s uncle and former coach, Toni Nadal. Federer texted Auger-Aliassime in February when he finally won his first tournament. “I’m happy for you, well done,” Federer wrote.But more downs than ups have followed, with early losses on hardcourts, which are supposed to be his best surface, and then on clay in Marrakesh, Monte Carlo and Estoril, Portugal, where he was the top seed.“After January, we did not expect the losses, but we know consistency is very difficult,” said Frédéric Fontang, Auger-Aliassime’s coach since 2017. “He does have an ability to absorb and keep learning and always do his best, and that is the first talent that a top player must have.”This is the way it has always been for Auger-Aliassime, ever since his father, Sam Aliassime, a tennis coach in Quebec, introduced him to the sport when he was a boy. Aliassime coached his son until he was 13. Auger-Aliassime then moved to Montreal to train with Canada’s suddenly vibrant development program.Borfiga first saw Auger-Aliassime play as a 6-year-old, but it was four years later that his potential became apparent. Borfiga said he already had a “heavy ball,” a term tennis coaches and players use to describe someone whose strokes naturally produce shots that mix power and spin in a way that makes them difficult to return.Auger-Aliassime’s coach said his physical gifts and his huge serve, big forehand and soft hands made his success nearly inevitable.Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesAuger-Aliassime said he began to grasp how good he might one day be when he won an international junior tournament in Auray, France, when he was 11.“From then on, the belief was there,” he said.His success and personal appeal have attracted plenty of blue-chip endorsements, including a partnership with BNP Paribas, the international bank that is among the biggest sponsors in tennis. For every point Auger-Aliassime wins on tour this year, the bank donates $15 and Auger-Aliassime donates $5 to children’s education in Togo.“He represents the youth,” Jean-Yves Fillion, the chief executive of BNP Paribas USA, said of Auger-Aliassime.And yet there are those vexing defeats — coughing up a two-set lead to the Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev at the 2021 Australian Open; an early loss to Max Purcell, the 190th-ranked player, at the Tokyo Olympics; and a second-round loss at the 2021 National Bank Open on home soil in Toronto to Dusan Lajovic of Serbia. And then there was Sunday’s nervy escape during his first appearance on Philippe Chatrier Court.Auger-Aliassime’s team, led by Fontang, built his schedule in 2022 around opportunities for victories, including more smaller tournaments. If he can start winning those, then maybe winning will become a habit.Fontang wants Auger-Aliassime to be even more aggressive, to take advantage of his power and size by coming to the net more and finishing points.Ettore Ferrari/EPA, via ShutterstockFontang said players with an aggressive style like Auger-Aliassime’s might take longer to reach their full potential because they were more prone to mistakes, though few players are more aggressive than Alcaraz. He said Auger-Aliassime’s physical gifts made his success nearly inevitable in his mind. But Fontang wants Auger-Aliassime to be even more aggressive, to take advantage of his power and size by coming to the net more and finishing points, though that could hasten further inconsistency. “Of course, the future we cannot know, but he just can’t be static,” Fontang said. “What you see with the best players is that there is no part when they are standing still.”Auger-Aliassime has no intention of doing that, even though he knows the path to the top keeps getting narrower the higher he climbs. Tennis math, simple as it is, is exceedingly cruel. There are only 10 players in the top 10, and only one can be No. 1.“The elite,” he said with a shake of his head, “are just so consistent.” More

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    Rafael Nadal Is the French Open’s Man of Mystery

    He was unbeatable at the start of the year, then could hardly finish a match in the run-up to the French Open because of an injury. Which version of the 13-time champion of this tournament will show up?Rafael Nadal has a chronically injured left foot that sometimes hurts so much he cannot play.A stress fracture in one of his ribs, suffered at Indian Wells in March, cut short his clay-court season and has left him with far less preparation than usual ahead of his favorite tournament, the French Open.His knees are often on the edge of balky. He is two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, an age that, a generation ago, would have effectively stopped him from contending for, much less winning, Grand Slam titles. He limped through the final set of his last match, a three-set loss in the round of 16 at the Italian Open.And yet, as Alexander Zverev, the world’s third-ranked men’s tennis player, watched Nadal practice Thursday morning — because even the best players in the world will stop and watch Nadal hit any ball at any time on the red clay of Roland Garros — Nadal’s vulnerability was not on his mind.“Rafa, at this place,” Zverev began, then paused so he could properly explain what he thought he, his father and his coach had just witnessed, “all of a sudden his forehand is just 20 miles an hour faster. He moves lighter on his feet. There is something about this court that makes him play 30 percent better.”Few would take issue with Zverev’s assessment. Nadal is 105-3 at Roland Garros. He has won 13 singles titles, the first coming half a lifetime ago, in 2005. He is the only player in the field with a 9-foot silver statue on these grounds.“When we talk about favorites, for Roland Garros and clay, Nadal has to be right at the top,” Novak Djokovic, the reigning champion, said Friday.For the first 10 weeks of the year, no one could beat Nadal. He won three titles and 21 consecutive matches (including a walkover) before the young American Taylor Fritz beat him at Indian Wells. But the wild swings of injury-induced inactivity and success have made Nadal as mysterious a presence in the field as he has ever been, and in his mind, hardly the favorite.“For sure not, because the results say that I am not,” he said, before delivering a mysterious qualifier. “But you never know what can happen.”He would not be here, he said, if he did not think he had a chance to win.It has been a long time since Nadal showed up in Paris and this tournament was not his to lose. Nadal’s winning the French Open was long the closest thing to a foregone conclusion in this sport or any other.In October 2020, with the pandemic having prompted the French Tennis Federation to move the tournament to early fall from late spring, Nadal stampeded through the competition without dropping a set. He embarrassed Djokovic, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5, in the final.Nine months later, though, Djokovic got revenge, breaking Nadal’s spirit and his body during an epic four-set semifinal on his way to the championship. Mueller-Weiss Syndrome, the degenerative foot condition that Nadal has had since childhood, prevented him from playing for most of the rest of the year. For months during the fall, Nadal wondered whether he would ever play again.Then the pain became manageable. And after just a few weeks of preparation and a single tournament, Nadal won the Australian Open in January, showing the world once more that counting him out is a terrible idea. But in recent days, the pain has been difficult again, and the top players can sense that the 2022 French Open has a different feel than others in recent memory.“A lot of competition on the men’s side,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who lost the final to Djokovic last year after winning the first two sets. “It’s something that we haven’t seen for sure in a long time.”Tsitsipas, 23, spoke of the “slightly younger and very hungry” players like himself, who are desperate to begin winning Grand Slams, and of Carlos Alcaraz, the rising and dangerous 19-year-old from Spain. “He seems like he plays tennis just because he enjoys the sport,” Tsitsipas said of the young Spaniard. But he prefaced those comments with a reference to Nadal, someone he jokingly described as having won the French Open “at least 28 times.” That is how large his presence looms on these grounds.Nadal tried to downplay his prowess at Roland Garros on Friday.He has collected dozens of championships on red clay throughout Europe, winning a dozen in Barcelona, 10 in Rome and 11 in Monte Carlo, so 13 at Roland Garros makes sense, sort of, he suggested. (No, it doesn’t. It’s ridiculous.)Also, he said that the results from the last two months mattered more than titles won a long time ago. The rib injury made it difficult for him to sleep, much less swing a racket, especially with the violent torque that he generates on even his routine shots. Others, he said, have played so much more, and better.Then again, Grand Slam tournaments, with their seven, best-of-five-set matches played over two weeks, are long affairs, especially on clay, on which points and matches stretch into attrition territory. The competitions are long enough for a player with a certain familiarity with the territory, who knows better than anyone what it takes to win tennis marathons, whose game is all about punishment, to catch up with those who are better prepared.Then there is the additional motivation that Djokovic said every player gained when he showed up to compete for a Grand Slam title, an opportunity that awakened “so much emotion.”“That is why you cannot underestimate anyone,” he said.It is a rush of adrenaline that can make debilitating, even hobbling, aches and pains magically and mysteriously recede.“Things can change quick,” Nadal said, though neither he nor anyone else can say with any certainty that they will. “Only thing that I can do is try to be ready if that change happens.” More

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    Carlos Alcaraz, at 19, Is a Favorite at the French Open

    Alcaraz, 19, has arrived in Paris with an unusual level of buzz and momentum for his age.PARIS — When the future No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero was 19, he came to Roland Garros for the 1999 French Open qualifying tournament and lost in the first round.His pupil, Carlos Alcaraz, is on a more accelerated timetable. At 19, Alcaraz has arrived in Paris as the No. 6 seed in the main draw and one of the clear favorites.With his all-action style, Alcaraz, the emotive Spanish teenager, plays as if plugged into some renewable source of energy and already has won four titles this season. He beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back on red clay in nerve-jangling duels in Madrid that seemed as much a tribute to Alcaraz’s appetite for combat as to his incandescent talent.On Friday, two days before the start of the French Open, a photo of Alcaraz, roaring with his right fist clenched, occupied nearly all the space on the front page of L’Équipe, the leading French sports publication.The word is justifiably out. Now, it is time to learn whether Alcaraz, who is in the top half of a top-heavy men’s draw, can manage the moment and the grind of best-of-five-set matches in just his sixth Grand Slam tournament.Djokovic congratulating Alcaraz at the end of their match at the Madrid Open.Pierre-Philippe Marcou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images“If everything stays normal, and there is no injury, I think he is absolutely ready for best of five,” Ferrero said in an interview this week. He added: “His character on the court is so big. He loves to go for the big points and for the big moment and is one of the few guys that you can see who is like this.”Since the Big Three — Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer — took collective command of the men’s game in the late 2000s, this is the first time that a next-generation player has come into a major men’s tournament with this level of buzz and momentum.“It seems to me, he’s not feeling the pressure, but let’s see when the time comes,” Ferrero said. “I have experience with that. I talk to him a lot. I think his commitment to practice and compete is the same as ever. So, let’s see where the limit is for him. And let’s see if he has no limits.”Ferrero, 42, who won the 2003 French Open and was ranked No. 1 the same year, knows more than most about scaling tennis summits. He has coached Alcaraz since 2018 out of his academy in Villena, Spain, in the stark countryside near Alicante that is long on dust and hilltop castles and short on modern-age distractions.When he is not traveling on tour, Alcaraz, who is from El Palmar, a suburb of Murcia, boards at the academy on weekdays before making the hourlong drive to spend weekends with his family.“Here we are really tranquilo,” or calm, Alcaraz said in a recent interview in Villena. “Here it’s tennis, tennis and more tennis. The town is five minutes away by car, but in reality it’s farther than that.”Alcaraz serving to Djokovic.Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesFerrero has been well aware of Alcaraz’s potential since he first saw him in a low-level professional tournament in Murcia at age 14. Ferrero has taken a considered and caring approach to developing Alcaraz’s game. They are clearly close, which showed during the Miami Open in March when Ferrero surprised Alcaraz before the final after traveling from Spain following his father’s funeral.In training, the focus is on accentuating Alcaraz’s varied game: He spends a great deal of time at the net and in transition, not just at the baseline. In terms of hours on court, the goal is quality over quantity, which preserves Alcaraz’s body for the long run while emphasizing intensity.“The way you practice will affect the way you play,” Alcaraz said. “If you don’t train every ball with that intensity and seriousness, how are you going to know how to do it in a match?”Ferrero tries to draw on his own experience and mistakes. He soared to the top but peaked early at age 23, before falling back because of injuries and the rise of Federer and Nadal. After winning the French Open in 2003, he never advanced past the third round there before retiring in 2012.Ferrero sometimes did not heed his body’s signals and overplayed, which factored into Alcaraz’s decision to withdraw from the Italian Open earlier this month after winning back-to-back tournaments on clay in Barcelona and Madrid. The goal was to give Alcaraz time to recover from the sprained right ankle and blister on his foot that surfaced in Madrid but also to give him a break from the commotion and inevitable French Open questions before Paris.“Let’s just say that he wanted to go to Rome, but let’s just say also that he was thinking of the future, of what was best for him to arrive at Roland Garros at 100 percent,” Ferrero said.After winning in Madrid, Alcaraz took three days off and returned home to El Palmar, where he beamed and brandished the Madrid trophy on the balcony of his family’s apartment with his parents behind him and a large crowd of fans gathered below, including a group of drummers.One can only imagine the din in El Palmar if Alcaraz were to prevail in Paris.Ferrero said they did unusually long training sessions in Villena — up to three hours — to prepare for best-of-five-set matches. On Tuesday, Alcaraz had one of his regular sessions at the academy with a Spanish performance psychologist, Isabel Balaguer.“A lot of players get lost on the way trying to manage everything, and I think psychologists can help a lot to keep them on a good track,” Ferrero said. “It helps with establishing good routines on and off the court. Carlos does not do a lot of visualization. They work in another way, talking about the things that have happened to him, how to manage everything, how to stay calm and how to stay with the feet on the ground.”“Tennis is a team sport all the time except when you are on the court,” Alcaraz said. Denis Doyle/Getty ImagesThat could be nearly as challenging as outlasting Djokovic from the baseline, but Alcaraz has emphasized that big success does not have to lead to a big head.“Tennis is a team sport all the time except when you are on the court,” he said.This moment in Paris stirs memories of Nadal, the ultimate Spanish prodigy, who arrived at Roland Garros on a roll in 2005 as the No. 4 seed and won his first Grand Slam title at 19. Nadal’s body of work was superior at that early stage. He had helped Spain win the Davis Cup in 2004 and won five tournaments on clay in 2005 before arriving in Paris. That was Nadal’s first French Open but only because he missed the tournament in 2003 and 2004 with injuries.Alcaraz was only 2 years old at that point and not yet pounding balls obsessively in El Palmar against the hitting wall at his family’s sports club. But Alcaraz does remember the 2013 French Open semifinal, when Djokovic was up a break of serve on Nadal in the fifth set only to lose his edge and the match after dropping a point for touching the net after tapping a seemingly routine overhead winner.“I watched plenty of tennis, but that’s my first really clear memory of a match,” Alcaraz said.Nine years later, he looks like the biggest threat to Nadal and Djokovic at Roland Garros, where all three of them are in the top half of the draw. Alcaraz is clearly at home on hardcourts — he won the Miami Open this year — but grew up training almost exclusively on clay.Alcaraz may be the biggest threat to Nadal and Djokovic at Roland Garros this year.Denis Doyle/Getty ImagesHe already has played in the French Open: He lost in the third round last year to Jan-Lennard Struff, a veteran German. But Alcaraz’s game, strength and confidence have grown considerably since then.“I see Carlos as a blend of the Big Three,” said Craig O’Shannessy, an Australian tennis-analytics specialist who was part of Struff’s team last year. “You’ve got the mentality and tenacity of Nadal and the exquisite timing and willingness to come to the net of Federer. And then you have the aggressive baseline play like Djokovic: the power and flexibility to hit big off both sides from the backcourt.”For now, Alcaraz says his goal is to win one of the three Grand Slam tournaments remaining in 2022. He was beaten in the third round of this year’s Australian Open in a fifth-set tiebreaker by Matteo Berrettini, double faulting on match point.“I think it was the right time to lose a match,” Ferrero said. “Maybe he could have won and gone on to the semifinals like Berrettini, but maybe that would not have been useful as a loss.”Four months later, after four titles, coach and pupil sound less inclined to see the bright side of defeat. Ferrero already has gone all the way in Paris, and as Alcaraz spoke at the academy in Villena, he did so in a room filled with Ferrero’s trophies, including the smaller model of the Coupe des Mousquetaires presented to the men’s champion at Roland Garros.“They should have given him the big one,” Alcaraz said with a chuckle. “I was a bit young to remember some of these, but this place is full of memories and important trophies to Juan Carlos. It’s obviously an inspiration. I hope one day I can match it or go past it.” More

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    The Challenge for Young Players: Achieving Dominance

    Tennis experts offer advice on how young women can improve their games and move up in the rankings.When Ash Barty retired in March, the conversation centered on how someone so young could walk away from tennis. For a Women’s Tennis Association champion, however, 25 is relatively old.Since Serena Williams’s last Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2017, 15 of 19 Slam winners have been 25 or younger, and 11 were women no more than 23. The new world No. 1, Iga Swiatek, won’t be 21 until the end of this month.However, most of that group failed to ensconce themselves at the top of the sport: Jelena Ostapenko, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin and, especially, Garbiñe Muguruza and Naomi Osaka are still threats, but all have Ping-Ponged up and down the rankings because of injuries and other struggles.That opens the door to the Top 10 for the next generation. But to reach the sport’s summit, these players must address their weaknesses. However, as the American player Coco Gauff noted, “It’s tough to work on new things when you’re practicing during a tournament because you don’t want to introduce something new just before a match.”Marta Kostyuk and Amanda Anisimova said they skipped tournaments, sacrificing ranking points, to make time for practice. “I have a good balance,” Anisimova said. “My game is a work in progress, and it’s not a speedy process.”Pam Shriver, an ESPN analyst and former professional player, said that in the late fall, players out of contention for the year-end WTA Finals would be well served by taking more time off. “They should each do a major assessment after the U.S. Open to see if they want to retool a few things,” she said.They should learn to emulate Barty’s well-rounded game, said Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst and the multiple Grand Slam winner. “She had variety in her shots and a Plan B or Plan C in every match,” Navratilova said. “You have to be able to hurt people in more ways than one.”Fortunately, said Rennae Stubbs, an ESPN analyst and former professional player, the competitors’ youth allows time to grow: “Yes, there are things they can improve, but the great players from the past all changed how they played as they got older and stronger.”Here are seven players no older than 22 and advice on how they could improve their games.Emma Raducanu at the Madrid Open tennis earlier this month. Manu Fernandez/Associated PressEmma RaducanuLast year, Raducanu, 19, who is ranked 12th, stunned the sport by winning the United States Open. But instant stardom can create problems, Navratilova said.“She’s getting thrown too much into the world outside tennis,” Navratilova said of distractions like social media. “And agents often try to get the bucks while the player’s hot.”Shriver, who reached a U.S. Open final at 16, can relate. “It changed my whole world,” she said. “It takes awhile to get resituated with your new identity and responsibilities.”Coco Gauff at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March,Mark J. Terrill/Associated PressCoco GauffGauff, 18, and ranked 18th, is working on her footwork and on staying calm under pressure, “making sure I take my time between points,” she said.Her elders prefer that she focus on her forehand. “It has gotten better, but it’s still the shot that goes off,” Navratilova said.Stubbs blamed Gauff’s extreme forehand grip, exacerbated by a long swing and not enough racket-head speed.For an athlete of Gauff’s caliber, time may provide the solution, Shriver said. “When you’re still growing into your body, it’s not easy to always have the same contact point on shots,” she said, “so some of this will change when Coco settles into her frame.”Leylah Fernandez in April playing in Vancouver, Canada. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated PressLeylah FernandezHer top priority, Shriver said, should be building up durability and strength: “She needs a strong core to withstand the power of the top players but also the week-in, week-out playing.”As a lefty, Fernandez, 19, and ranked 17th, must also use her cross-court forehand to pull players off the court on their backhand side, Shriver said, and earn more free points on her serve, Stubbs added. “Her service motion could get a little more fluid,” Stubbs said. “It gets a little discombobulated.”Amanda Anisimova at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in January.Dean Lewins/EPA, via ShutterstockAmanda AnisimovaAnisimova, 20, and ranked 33rd, has the shots to be a champion, Navratilova said, but must move forward and take balls earlier. “She hits a big shot to the corner, but is still six feet behind the baseline,” Navratilova said. “She needs to step in and take advantage.”Shriver said players like Maria Sharapova improved their speed and quickness through training. Anisimova is on board: “I’m most focused on my movement and becoming a better athlete, and I think it’s improved a lot over the last couple of months.” Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic at a tournament in Prague last year.Petr David Josek/Associated PressMarketa VondrousovaFor Vondrousova, 22, and ranked 35th, it’s about mental growth more than specific shots. “She’s very talented and has great variety in her shots, but sometimes she gets down on herself mentally,” Stubbs said.Her lack of fire could just be natural reserve, Shriver said, but to prove doubters wrong, Vondrousova must display a killer instinct in rallies: “She has a good lefty forehand, but needs to make it an intimidating weapon.”Clara Tauson of Denmark at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in January.Mark Metcalfe/Getty ImagesClara Tauson“She has the world at her feet, but needs to get her fitness level up there,” said Stubbs, who expects big things as Tauson, 19, becomes more comfortable on the tour: “If she can get quicker, she won’t have to always hit the big shot.”Shriver said Tauson, who is ranked 43rd, had game-changing power but sometimes lacked intensity: “Maybe she’s just shy, but sometimes it feels like she’s not fully engaged. I’d like to see some passion on the court.”Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine at the Madrid Open earlier this month.Manu Fernandez/Associated PressMarta KostyukWith her father still in Ukraine, this Kyiv native has bigger things on her mind. “Most important is that she gets help dealing with this trauma, because it’s going to be in her life,” Shriver said, adding that Kostyuk, 19, must be patient with her tennis game for now.Kostyuk, who is ranked 58th, said that in addition to working on her shot selection during rallies, she was most focused on “staying in the present.”However, even without the horrors in her homeland, that is not easy to work on in practice. “It is a big part of it,” Kostyuk said, “but these are abstract ideas, so it’s not like just working on your down-the-line backhand.” More

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    Tennis Experts Offer Advice on How Young Players Can Improve

    Tennis experts offer advice on how young women can improve their games and move up in the rankings.When Ash Barty retired in March, the conversation centered on how someone so young could walk away from tennis. For a Women’s Tennis Association champion, however, 25 is relatively old.Since Serena Williams’s last Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2017, 15 of 19 Slam winners have been 25 or younger, and 11 were women no more than 23. The new world No. 1, Iga Swiatek, won’t be 21 until the end of this month.However, most of that group failed to ensconce themselves at the top of the sport: Jelena Ostapenko, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin and, especially, Garbiñe Muguruza and Naomi Osaka are still threats, but all have Ping-Ponged up and down the rankings because of injuries and other struggles.That opens the door to the Top 10 for the next generation. But to reach the sport’s summit, these players must address their weaknesses. However, as the American player Coco Gauff noted, “It’s tough to work on new things when you’re practicing during a tournament because you don’t want to introduce something new just before a match.”Marta Kostyuk and Amanda Anisimova said they skipped tournaments, sacrificing ranking points, to make time for practice. “I have a good balance,” Anisimova said. “My game is a work in progress, and it’s not a speedy process.”Pam Shriver, an ESPN analyst and former professional player, said that in the late fall, players out of contention for the year-end WTA Finals would be well served by taking more time off. “They should each do a major assessment after the U.S. Open to see if they want to retool a few things,” she said.They should learn to emulate Barty’s well-rounded game, said Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst and the multiple Grand Slam winner. “She had variety in her shots and a Plan B or Plan C in every match,” Navratilova said. “You have to be able to hurt people in more ways than one.”Fortunately, said Rennae Stubbs, an ESPN analyst and former professional player, the competitors’ youth allows time to grow: “Yes, there are things they can improve, but the great players from the past all changed how they played as they got older and stronger.”Here are seven players no older than 22 and advice on how they could improve their games.Emma Raducanu at the Madrid Open earlier this month. Manu Fernandez/Associated PressEmma RaducanuLast year, Raducanu, 19, who is ranked 12th, stunned the sport by winning the United States Open. But instant stardom can create problems, Navratilova said.“She’s getting thrown too much into the world outside tennis,” Navratilova said of distractions like social media. “And agents often try to get the bucks while the player’s hot.”Shriver, who reached a U.S. Open final at 16, can relate. “It changed my whole world,” she said. “It takes awhile to get resituated with your new identity and responsibilities.”Coco Gauff at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March.Mark J. Terrill/Associated PressCoco GauffGauff, 18, and ranked 18th, is working on her footwork and on staying calm under pressure, “making sure I take my time between points,” she said.Her elders prefer that she focus on her forehand. “It has gotten better, but it’s still the shot that goes off,” Navratilova said.Stubbs blamed Gauff’s extreme forehand grip, exacerbated by a long swing and not enough racket-head speed.For an athlete of Gauff’s caliber, time may provide the solution, Shriver said. “When you’re still growing into your body, it’s not easy to always have the same contact point on shots,” she said, “so some of this will change when Coco settles into her frame.”Leylah Fernandez in April playing in Vancouver, Canada. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated PressLeylah FernandezHer top priority, Shriver said, should be building up durability and strength: “She needs a strong core to withstand the power of the top players but also the week-in, week-out playing.”As a lefty, Fernandez, 19, and ranked 17th, must also use her cross-court forehand to pull players off the court on their backhand side, Shriver said, and earn more free points on her serve, Stubbs added. “Her service motion could get a little more fluid,” Stubbs said. “It gets a little discombobulated.”Amanda Anisimova at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in January.Dean Lewins/EPA, via ShutterstockAmanda AnisimovaAnisimova, 20, and ranked 33rd, has the shots to be a champion, Navratilova said, but must move forward and take balls earlier. “She hits a big shot to the corner, but is still six feet behind the baseline,” Navratilova said. “She needs to step in and take advantage.”Shriver said players like Maria Sharapova improved their speed and quickness through training. Anisimova is on board: “I’m most focused on my movement and becoming a better athlete, and I think it’s improved a lot over the last couple of months.” Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic at a tournament in Prague last year.Petr David Josek/Associated PressMarketa VondrousovaFor Vondrousova, 22, and ranked 35th, it’s about mental growth more than specific shots. “She’s very talented and has great variety in her shots, but sometimes she gets down on herself mentally,” Stubbs said.Her lack of fire could just be natural reserve, Shriver said, but to prove doubters wrong, Vondrousova must display a killer instinct in rallies: “She has a good lefty forehand, but needs to make it an intimidating weapon.”Clara Tauson of Denmark at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in January.Mark Metcalfe/Getty ImagesClara Tauson“She has the world at her feet, but needs to get her fitness level up there,” said Stubbs, who expects big things as Tauson, 19, becomes more comfortable on the tour: “If she can get quicker, she won’t have to always hit the big shot.”Shriver said Tauson, who is ranked 43rd, had game-changing power but sometimes lacked intensity: “Maybe she’s just shy, but sometimes it feels like she’s not fully engaged. I’d like to see some passion on the court.”Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine at the Madrid Open earlier this month.Manu Fernandez/Associated PressMarta KostyukWith her father still in Ukraine, this Kyiv native has bigger things on her mind. “Most important is that she gets help dealing with this trauma, because it’s going to be in her life,” Shriver said, adding that Kostyuk, 19, must be patient with her tennis game for now.Kostyuk, who is ranked 58th, said that in addition to working on her shot selection during rallies, she was most focused on “staying in the present.”However, even without the horrors in her homeland, that is not easy to work on in practice. “It is a big part of it,” Kostyuk said, “but these are abstract ideas, so it’s not like just working on your down-the-line backhand.” More

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    How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Tied Set?

    On a trial basis, the four major tennis tournaments will begin playing their matches under the same regulations.Nick Kyrgios knew he could be a top tennis player when he won his first main draw match at the French Open in 2013.“It was memorable because I beat Radek Stepanek in three tiebreakers,” said Kyrgios, who has twice reached major quarterfinals and been ranked as high as No. 13 in the world. “To have them all go my way, that’s when I fell in love with tiebreakers. I think they’re pretty special.”When the French Open begins on Sunday, the tournament will feature yet another new tiebreaker rule that will, for the first time, see the four major championships — Wimbledon, and the French, United States and Australian Opens — using the same tiebreaker policies.When a match reaches 6-6 in the final set, which is the fifth set for men’s singles and the third for women’s singles, the players will contest a super-tiebreaker. The first player to win 10 points by a 2-point margin will win the set and the match. The rule change is being used as a trial in the three majors this year and in next year’s Australian Open.“Our challenge is to protect the soul of [the French Open ] while entering a new era,” said Amélie Mauresmo, the tournament’s new director and a former world No. 1. “We’re trying to modernize things on a daily basis.”A 2010 first-round Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days, finally concluding when Isner took a 70-68 fifth-set win. Pool photo by Suzanne PlunkettTiebreakers, or tiebreaks, as they have inexplicably been renamed by many in the sport, were introduced at the 1970 U.S. Open as a way of shortening matches and holding the attention of spectators and television audiences, as well as preserving the health and well-being of players.Back then, tiebreakers — first a 9-point “sudden death” version that ended when a player won 5 points, which was later changed to a “lingering death” alternative that required a player to win 7 points by a margin of 2 — were played in all sets except the final one. Final sets required that play continue until someone won by a two-game margin.The four tournaments that comprise the Grand Slam could never agree on a format for the deciding set, so each event made its own rules. Beginning in 2016, the Australian Open introduced a super-tiebreaker at 6-6, while Wimbledon began playing a traditional tiebreaker at 12-12 in 2019. The rule was immediately put to the test that year when Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3) for the men’s title.Wimbledon was under pressure to make the change after two defining matches. The first was a 2010 first-round match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut that lasted 11 hours and five minutes over three days, finally concluding when Isner took a 70-68 fifth-set win. Then, in 2018, Isner and Kevin Anderson played a six-hour, 36-minute semifinal that Anderson ultimately won, but that left him so depleted that he lost the final in straight sets to Djokovic.The U.S. Open has been contesting a 12-point tiebreaker (the first to 7 points wins) in all sets since 1975. During that time, only one men’s final has featured a tiebreaker in the final set: In 2020, Dominic Thiem came back from two sets down to beat Alexander Zverev 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) in a made-for-television match in which no fans were allowed in the stands because of the coronavirus pandemic.“I love tiebreakers,” said Hana Mandlikova, 60, who vividly recalled every point of the final tiebreaker against Martina Navratilova at the 1985 U.S. Open. “You have to be risky, and you have to be a little bit lucky.”Bettmann/Getty ImagesTwo women’s finals have gone the distance. Tracy Austin defeated Martina Navratilova 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-1) in 1981 and Hana Mandlikova upset Navratilova 7-6 (7-3), 1-6, 7-6 (7-2) in 1985.“I love tiebreakers,” said Mandlikova, 60, who vividly recalled every point of the final tiebreaker against Navratilova, including a diving cross-court backhand volley on match point. “People who play riskier tennis instead of staying along the baseline have a better percentage of winning the tiebreaker,” she continued. “You have to be risky, and you have to be a little bit lucky.”Kyrgios, who beat Stepanek 7-6, (7-4), 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (13-11) in that 2013 French Open first-rounder, said a tiebreaker was not based on skill. “It obviously favors the bigger serve at times, but it can go either way,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the scoring in tennis. Every point counts.”Until this year, the French Open shunned the final-set tiebreaker. Since the tournament began in 1891, it has featured very few extended final sets, though the slow red clay and never-ending rallies have produced multiple five-hour matches. Only twice in the men’s draw has a final gone the distance: a 1927 match won by René Lacoste over Bill Tilden 11-9 in the fifth set and a 2004 final between Gastón Gaudio and Guillermo Coria, which Gaudio ultimately won 8-6 in the fifth.Jennifer Capriati’s win over Kim Clijsters in the final set of the 2001 French Open was one of the tournament’s most suspenseful endings.Philippe Wojazer/ReutersThe women, on the other hand, have produced some extraordinary final sets in the French Open, including an 8-6 third-set win by Steffi Graf over Navratilova in 1987, a 10-8 third-set win by Monica Seles over Graf in 1992, a 10-8 third-set win by Graf over Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in 1996 and one of the tournament’s all-time highlights, a 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 victory by Jennifer Capriati over Kim Clijsters in the 2001 final.Danielle Collins, one of the top-ranked U.S. pros, remembers honing her tiebreaker skills while competing in junior matches.“If you split sets, you played a 10-point tiebreaker for the third set,” Collins said. “I would get down all the time. One time I was down 9-1 and came back to win. Those 10-point tiebreakers can be really fun.” Stefanos Tsitsipas likes the idea of never-ending matches but understands the need for final-set tiebreakers in today’s increasingly physical matches.“As a kid I liked watching these crazy best-of-five matches that went all the way to 18-16,” he said. “It was just fun to watch and see who was going to break first. On the other hand, you can’t allow players to play until 6 in the morning with that format. It can get quite exhausting.”In the 2020 U.S. Open, Dominic Thiem, of Austria, came back from two sets down to beat Alexander Zverev, of Germany.Chang W. Lee/The New York TimesStan Wawrinka, who won the French Open in 2015, would prefer that the majors stop tinkering with their tiebreaker formulas.“What I liked before was that they were all a different ending,” said Wawrinka, who is working his way back from knee surgery. “I enjoyed that. But it’s impossible to find one thing that everybody will like. To all be the same now is not my favorite thing, but it is what it is and we don’t have a choice.”Djokovic is proud that he and Federer got to play the first championship match in Wimbledon history to feature a final-set tiebreaker. He also knows it was a one-and-only now that Wimbledon will also play final-set tiebreakers at 6-6 instead of 12-12.“There is history in extended play in most of the Slams,” Djokovic said. “That Isner-Mahut, the longest match ever, it’s written down with golden letters in the history of tennis. Many people remember that match, and it has brought a lot of attention to our sport from the wider audience.” More

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    Carlos Alcaraz, Just 19, Has His Eye on a Grand Slam Title

    He’s the youngest tennis player to crack the top 10 since Rafael Nadal — but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.ROQUEBRUNE-CAP-MARTIN, France — Carlos Alcaraz of Spain was walking to a series of television interviews at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters here last month when something stopped him in his tracks: A Maserati MC20 on display.Cars have become a passion for Alcaraz, even though he didn’t obtain his driver’s license until this year, well past his 18th birthday. The 15-minute test, Alcaraz admitted, was “really, really tough. I was really nervous, and I was sweating.”When it comes to choosing his own dream car, Alcaraz said he would shun a sports car for a more practical sport-utility vehicle, even if it were the $200,000 Lamborghini Urus. With more than $5 million in career prize money, as well as income from endorsement deals, he can have whatever car he wants.On the court, Alcaraz revs his own engine by bellowing and pumping his fists after hard-won points. He can quickly cover the court both side to side and from behind the baseline to the net. His shot selection is staggering, with drop shots hit so deftly that opponents are left to stare in disgust.A year ago, Alcaraz hovered on the verge of the top 100 men’s players in the world and was forced to play three qualifying matches to reach the main draw of the French Open. This year, he enters the event with a career-high No. 6 ranking after winning four ATP titles in the last four months.With his win in Barcelona on April 24, Alcaraz became the youngest player to crack the world’s top 10 since his countryman and idol, Rafael Nadal, did so by winning the same tournament, on the same day, in 2005. Alcaraz followed it up by winning his second ATP Masters 1000 in Madrid — his first was the Miami Open in April — becoming the first player to beat Nadal and Novak Djokovic back to back on clay. Heading into the French Open, Alcaraz has a 28-3 record on the season.While focused and animated on court, Alcaraz, who turned 19 on May 5, is poised beyond his years. He wasn’t even rattled when his luggage went missing when he returned home to Spain from Miami. In Monte Carlo, he moved across a line of television cameras, offering similar quotes to each. And he never stopped smiling.The following conversation has been edited and condensed.You’ve been compared to Nadal, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Which means the most to you?Obviously Rafa. He’s Spanish, I grew up watching his matches, and he was my idol since I was a kid.We’ve seen others described as the new Nadal who couldn’t handle the pressure. How are you holding up?Everybody knows who is Rafa and what he has achieved in tennis, so I’m trying not to think that I’m the new Nadal. I’m just trying to be Carlos Alcaraz. If I make pressure on myself trying to be Rafa Nadal and win 21 Grand Slams, it’s really tough, and in the end it’s dangerous to myself.Alcaraz won his second ATP Masters 1000 in Madrid, becoming the first player to beat Nadal and Novak Djokovic back to back on clay. Heading into the French Open, Alcaraz has a 28-3 record on the season.Bernat Armangue/Associated PressLast year you said your goal was to make the top 20, and you’ve already surpassed that. What’s next?At the end of last year I said my goal was to win an ATP 500, then a Masters 1000. I did both of those, so now I’m trying to win a Grand Slam and qualify for the ATP Finals.Your coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, told you not to be in a rush to get to the top. You haven’t listened. What is he telling you now?He’s telling me to stay calm, to do the things that I already do, to follow my way. Don’t think about this tournament or the top five. Just stay level and be the same person that I’ve been this past year.You and Iga Swiatek, the new women’s No. 1, have both had great success at a young age. Have you talked to her?Not really. I wrote to congratulate her after she won the Miami Open, but she didn’t respond. I don’t have her number, so I wrote on Instagram. I think she received a million messages.I don’t know if you’ve seen “King Richard,” the biopic about the father of Venus and Serena Williams, but who would you like to play you in the Carlos Alcaraz story?I haven’t seen the movie yet, but [Leonardo] DiCaprio. More