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What’s Holding Carlos Alcaraz Back Since Winning Wimbledon?

Let’s start with a big qualifier: Carlos Alcaraz is probably going to be just fine. He’s 20 years old. He’s already won two Grand Slam titles, with neither of them coming on clay, which may be his best surface and is certainly the one he is most familiar with. At 19, he became the youngest man to achieve the No 1 ranking.Even his top rivals, including contemporaries such as Jannik Sinner, expect Alcaraz to be the greatest player of his era. He is going to win a lot of tournaments, many of them Grand Slams. It’s just that he hasn’t won a tournament since he beat Novak Djokovic in five sets in the Wimbledon final eight months ago. That is his longest stretch without an ATP Tour-level title since he started winning them in 2021.And that is, well, a bit weird. Remember those heady days after Wimbledon? After he came back to beat Djokovic, the best grass court player in the world, on Centre Court, there was a sense that he had wrestled the torch out of the hands of the Serbian champion, a player who had won more Grand Slam titles and just about everything else than just about everyone. This was supposed to be the start of Alcaraz winning just about everything for a very long time. Alcaraz celebrates with the Wimbledon trophy last year (Julian Finney/Getty Images)That might still happen. It just hasn’t happened yet. He’s a respectable 24-11 since winning Wimbledon. Then again, Sinner won his first title at the Australian Open in January, took two weeks off, then went to Rotterdam and won another title. He’s undefeated this year and hasn’t lost a match since mid-November. Both begin play at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, the so-called “fifth major”, later this week. “I have to improve a lot of things on the court and off the court, as well,” Alcaraz said earlier in the year. He has lamented his dips in focus in the middle of matches. He has been at a loss to explain nights when he struggles to find the court with his usually lethal groundstrokes. He said when he practices occasionally with Djokovic, he studies how he concentrates, aspiring to one day be able to approach every match and every practice session with the intensity of the man who has set the standard for the sport the past decade and bested the two players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, once considered untouchable. Like every player, Alcaraz knows his weaknesses, such as they are, are some mystical combination of the physical, technical and mental. Alcaraz has resisted getting too specific about just what he needs to do to improve, leaving everyone else to figure out the answer to a question that feels a little silly given he has already won $27.5million in prize money and tens of millions more in sponsorships. He is 71-15 since the start of 2023. But here it goes anyway: what’s wrong with King Carlos?The short answer is, not too much, except when it’s a lot.Djokovic, Sinner, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, four of the best players alive, are responsible for six of Alcaraz’s 11 losses since July, which includes his retirement with an ankle injury in Rio in February. There’s not a terrible amount of shame in that, except that he had been beating everyone on that list except Djokovic fairly comfortably the past year. Alcaraz retired with an injury in Rio (Buda Mendes/Getty Images,)To figure out what, if anything, has changed from the version of Alcaraz that won 11 tournaments in 17 months during 2022 and 2023, we enlisted the help of the wizards at TennisViz and Tennis Data Innovations, who collect ball and player tracking data with high-speed cameras and analyze them in real-time to understand the effectiveness of every shot.The numbers show that Alcaraz has hardly become a shadow of his former self since Wimbledon, compared with an aggregate measurement of his play over the past year, but he has fallen off just enough to make himself more regularly vulnerable. That is especially true against the best of the best, when the slightest drop can result in a loss. Yet, his drop-offs have been dramatic in four surprising losses since last summer, to Nicolas Jarry and Roman Safiullin, and less surprising ones to Grigor Dimitrov and Tommy Paul (who has been a sneakily hard match-up for Alcaraz).Tom Corrie, a former coach who is the head of performance for Tennis Viz and has spent more time than most studying Alcaraz, has a theory about this, which involves the Spaniard being almost too talented for his own good.“The guy has endless tactical options,” Corrie said. “He’s unbelievably skilful, he hits with so much power, but sometimes he doesn’t play with a tactical framework that is as defined as some of the other players. Therefore, he goes missing in matches and plays at a bad level. When he drops off, he drops off quite big.”Also worth noting – men’s tennis is crazy deep at the moment. Even the second half of the top 100 has some serious quality. Have fun with an early-round match-up against Tomas Machac (No 63) of the Czech Republic. Freebies can be few and far between. Alcaraz’s opponents, who are almost always extra motivated, have to get some credit for making him play poorly. Still, some top-line numbers for Alcaraz stand out.One measure is how often Alcaraz is ‘on the attack’ — defined by Tennis Viz as when a player has received a low-quality incoming shot, has a positive court positioning (up the court), or has a comfortable contact point with the ball (not on the stretch). A player will be ‘in defense’ if they have received a high-quality shot, have bad court positioning (particularly deep or wide in the court), or are playing the ball on the stretch.The tour average for shots played in attack is 25 per cent. On average, Alcaraz is on the attack 24 per cent of the time, but since Wimbledon, that figure has dropped to 22 per cent. That might not sound like a lot, but tennis is a game of small margins. A few points can make a big difference and it’s harder to win them while defending. (Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)The other numbers that show relatively dramatic changes are the effectiveness of his service return, his forehand and his backhand. The high-speed cameras and computers generate a score for each of those shots based on their speed and placement — extra credit for painting the lines or getting very close very often. On average over the past year, Alcaraz was near the top of the game in each of those categories. On a scale of one to 10, Alcaraz’s service return averaged a 7.6, a full point better than the tour average and fifth overall. Since Wimbledon, his return rating has dropped to 7.0, still better than most but just 13th overall.His backhand, an 8.0 on average over the past year, good for sixth overall, has fallen to 7.6 since Wimbledon— 15th place. And his deadly forehand, the shot that makes players shudder, has had one of the most dramatic drop-offs, from 8.8 to 8.1, tumbling from second best to 15th.Alcaraz essentially magnified these trends during the surprising losses to Paul, Dimitrov, Safiullin and Jarry. Against Paul at the National Bank Open in Canada in August, he was on the attack during just 19 per cent of the match. Against Dimitrov in Shanghai and Jarry in Buenos Aires, the attack rate was just 20 per cent. That might not be such a problem if Alcaraz had continued to do the thing that has made him such a fan favorite — his ability to magically win a point from a defensive position when everything seems lost and he rockets a ridiculous forehand down the line on the run. That is known as his ‘steal score’. His steal score has averaged 37 per cent since the Wimbledon title — but in those four surprising losses, it was 30 per cent. Playing more defensively and less miraculously pretty much guarantees a loss. Add in sub-par execution on the most basic shots and there was no way Alcaraz was going to win those matches. His forehand quality was 7.3 against Paul and 6.8 against Jarry, both well below the tour average. Same for his backhand against Jarry and Safiullin. His performance against Jarry wasn’t just below his standards but way…


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