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Alcaraz makes the simple look easy in converting Musetti from competitor to bystander

Nov 04, 2023

The top seed ripped 47 winners to the Italian's 16 during a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 fourth-round demolition at Roland Garros Sunday.

Published Jun 04, 2023

The 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 scoreline of Carlos Alcaraz's two-hour and nine-minute round of 16 victory over Lorenzo Musetti suggests the routine. But it hardly does justice to what was revealed in this match.

By now, much is familiar about the wide range of Alcaraz's shots, a sprawling mural of color, texture, depth, and nuance. Plenty of that was on display today, as complete a game as you’ll see in tennis; even more amazing given that Alcaraz only last month turned 20. "I think this was my best match in the tournament so far," said Alcaraz. "Yeah, I think I played a good level."

Today also showed another Alcaraz attribute. It reminded me of a story I once heard from a regional jazz musician I’ll call Bob. One day at a local gig, Bob had a guest join him on the stage—a big-time, international jazz musician I’ll call Steve.

At one point, Steve waved his right hand backwards. Asked by Bob what that meant, he replied, "Play slower."

Next came a forward wave: "Play faster."

And then, palm raised in the air, an upward, clockwise circle. This confused Bob. Steve set him straight: "Play better."

Musetti had won all nine sets he played in the first three rounds, but couldn't manage to post one against the reigning US Open champion.


Tennis has a history of players who’ve done this at the late stages. In the serve-volley era, such champions as Jack Kramer, John Newcombe, and Pete Sampras had a remarkable ability to snap open sets and matches from 4-all onward.

Alcaraz today made his move even earlier. He didn't merely search and find his best game. As if turning on a light switch, he brought it quickly, all corners burning brightly—mobility, power, accuracy, variety. Down 0-2 in the first set, Alcaraz kicked into a higher gear, winning five of the next six games. After surrendering a 2-0 lead in the second, Alcaraz broke Musetti at 2-all and once again seized control.

A similar burst came at the same stage of the third set, Musetti again serving at 2-all. On the first point, Alcaraz terminated a rally with a sharp crosscourt forehand winner. Next, an untouchable down-the-line backhand return. Clearly intimidated by everything from Alcaraz's accuracy to footspeed, Musetti at love-30 overplayed a forehand approach shot to go down triple break point. At 30-40, Alcaraz made his way to net and clipped an angled forehand volley winner. The break in hand, Alcaraz consolidated it swiftly with a love hold. Match point at 5-2, advantage Alcaraz: kick serve wide, followed by a curled crosscourt forehand. Strange as it is to call an Alcaraz sequence a vintage play for someone so young, that's indeed what it was.

Play better. Simple? Yes. Easy? No.

Keep in mind that Musetti is seeded 17th and had won his first three matches without the loss of a set. In the third round, he’d comprehensively dismantled 14th-seeded Cam Norrie, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. Musetti had also beaten Alcaraz the only previous time the two had played one another at the tour level, a three-set thriller last summer in the final of Hamburg. Said Musetti, "I think he grew a lot since last meeting we had in Hamburg."

Alcaraz will carry a 4-0 record against his quarterfinal opponent Stefanos Tsitsipas. The 20-year-old beat the Greek to successfully defend his Barcelona crown in April.

© © Andy Cheung / ArcK Images / Getty Images

Sunday, though, Musetti could only offer occasional resistance, a bystander who struck 16 winners to 47 for Alcaraz. "I was too worried about him," said Musetti. "I was always too much in a rush during the game." In that sense, Musetti became less participant and more like the rest of us: spectator. Even Alcaraz likes the chance to take in what's occurred. Asked if he looks at the on-court video screen following one of his remarkable placements, Alcaraz said, "Yeah. A lot of times. Some big shots I want to watch again in the screen during the match." Such love of the game summons up such charismatic stars as baseball great Willie Mays and basketball legends Magic Johnson and Steph Curry.

In recent years, millions have wondered what's come once such greats as Serena Williams and Roger Federer leave the game. As if on cue, along has come Alcaraz. So much can be said already about his incredible tennis. So much more will be said in the years to come. How did Alcaraz become this great so quickly? What were his practice routines? How did he prepare and compete as a junior? In time, we’ll learn even more about his parents, coaches, friends. Just today, for example, Alcaraz praised two of his early coaches, Carlos Santos and Kiko Navarro.

But the keeper comment of late comes from something Alcaraz said last week at Roland Garros. Asked if he smiles because he wins so much or if he wins because he smiles, Alcaraz said, "I'm winning all the time because I am smiling. And I always said that smiling for me is the key of everything, you know. Yeah, I enjoy being this kind of stadium, these kind of tournament, cities. That's the most important for me to enjoy, and that's why I smile all the time."

Those words remind me of last fall's remarkable photo of Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Laver Cup, the two holding hands and crying following Federer's last match. The immediate instinct is to see tennis strictly as zero-sum, where one wins, the other loses—end of story. But as such displays as those tears from the titans and Alcaraz's smile show, it might well be possible to balance the challenges of competition with sheer joy for the chance to engage in it.