Thundercloud

“Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable.”

—David Foster Wallace, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” New York Times Magazine, August 2006


I have waited as long as I could. I held off when the murmurs began last spring—there have been a lot of hopeful stirrings these last few years that have fallen just short, and it’s best not to get too excited too early. I held off through that promising summer when the eye test started telling us a story, and even after last year’s US Open, when he stunned third-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets. Now it is spring. Last week at Indian Wells it took an in-form Nadal to stop him, just barely, and days ago in Miami he easily blew through Tsitsipas, who surely must have known what to expect this time. Still I waited—pieces like this look stupid if their subject immediately falters. He hasn’t; he’s just won Miami, a 1000-level event in which he handily beat three different players ranked in the top ten in the world. It’s time.


Carlos Alcaraz, eighteen years old from Spain, is the era-defining future of men’s tennis. If he remains healthy and on the court over this coming decade-plus, he will win whatever it occurs to him to win. And right now, somehow, I don’t care about that—I am enthralled by him this second, while his whole career remains unrealized but rapidly pulling together like a thundercloud about to burst.


An aside: I think a lot about “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” It’s The Piece for people like me, who think tennis is about something more not only in the typical way sports can mean things, but also in its moment-by-moment physics and aesthetics. Something profound is happening here; David Foster Wallace finally made the elongated case for this in a fancy magazine on all our behalf. But every time I revisit it, I’m always newly surprised by how in-the-weeds it gets, how granular, how manically he feels the need to break down every shot in a rally he’s remembering, or explain how topspin is generated, or discuss what materials rackets are made of. The piece is actually sort of a mess.


That’s tennis though, at least at the level we’re talking about. In order to understand how, in Wallace’s casting, prime Roger Federer is “a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light,” you have to see why on a muscular or physical or geometric level that passing shot he highlights Federer hitting against Agassi was impossible.


To that end: Carlos Alcaraz is not light, in Wallace’s usage. He’s a hummingbird holding a sledgehammer. First of all, the movement—no one else is doing what Alcaraz is doing. I don’t know what else to tell you. Modern, groundstroke-oriented tennis prioritizes supreme lateral quickness, the ability to move back and forth across the back of your court like a windshield wiper in order to efficiently track down shots off the bounce. The innovation Wallace describes Federer showcasing is his ability to then move forward into the court at the right times, fusing lateral baseline play with the skillset of players comfortable around the net, traditionally two separate stylistic lineages. But what tradition of play does Alcaraz embody, when he’s camped on the baseline one moment then suddenly stepping forward to play an eerily well-tuned dropshot the next, then back again to play an opponent’s reply off the bounce, then to the net once more to finish? How is it that he oscillates like this with seemingly no spatial drawback, never overcommitted or out of position, that at all times he is exactly where you do not want him to be?


Yes, I have a specific moment in mind, one among countless many. Just this week in Miami. Tsitsipas plays a heavy kick serve up the line to the Alcaraz backhand, gets himself the inside-out forehand he loves for his second shot. Now Stef, maybe the best purely offensive player alive right now, has his combo set up exactly how he wants. He steps in and takes advantage, carving a drop shot that forces Alcaraz to cover the full diagonal of the court into the net. Alcaraz gets there and plays a solid ball but again, this is what Tsitsipas wants, and he’s ready—he easily and casually plays the volley back over Alcaraz’s head, to the back corner he just came from at a dead sprint, and he hasn’t even stopped his forward momentum before having to decide now whether or not he’d like to trek back the way he came to reach a ball rapidly moving away from him.


This, to be clear, is where basically every player in the world would stop running, conserve energy, and concede the point.


This is not what happens.


Alcaraz commits to the run right away and gets there, but there’s not time to get his body turned around—so, facing fully away from the net, he runs over the ball and makes contact with it between his legs and backward. Somewhere during the single second all this takes place he finds the presence of mind to give the ball a high trajectory, sailing it back over Tsitsipas’s head in return, forcing him back. This on its own is a remarkable shot, an exciting highlight on its own, but we’ve seen it done before by others and it’s not what we’re here to talk about. That would be what comes next: after playing the ball between his legs, instead of catching his breath from his safe backcourt position while waiting for Stef’s reply, he runs the same diagonal again. By the time Tsitsipas plays his shot, Alcaraz has already run the full length of the court for a third time this point back toward the net, squares up, and knocks the easy winner out of the air.


Cue the crowd. Cue three more wins over the next several days, in which he was the noticeably superior player to men in the top ten and their primes. Cue the vertigo of watching a kid whose acne hasn’t cleared becoming the youngest 1000-level champion since Nadal in 2005.


And God, he is young. His actual age, yes, but also in all the ways that youth manifests. He bounces between points, runs like his knees have never once hurt, smiles when he wins like he’s feeling something exciting for the first time. This sense of discovery pervades his matches: at one point this tournament he won three out of four points with forehand winners that clocked over a hundred miles per hour, one of them seemingly by accident off his back foot, and I found myself thinking, he's not even good yet. He’s got easy, breathtaking firepower off the ground, almost too easy—he’s a player happy and fit enough to grind long rallies, until he remembers that he doesn’t have to. He’s learning his own capabilities on the fly, thrilling himself, and pushing further.


This is the future that David Foster Wallace was starting to sense in 2006. I have wished so badly for this beloved but interminable era of men’s tennis to end not by default but because someone would show up and forcibly end it, would take what Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have revealed about the boundaries of the sport and pull them into new, exotic places. I think, in the way he ends his essay with his hopeful observing of Junior Wimbledon, that Wallace wanted this too: “Whether anything like a nascent Federer was here among these juniors can’t be known, of course. Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform…” Inspiration of the rare sort he describes has now finally struck. How it blooms in Alcaraz these coming months will be the sort of high-stakes thrill that a sport offers its viewers once a generation.


Because, to be clear, it will get harder. Fun as this last year has been, things get interesting starting right here, with Alcaraz now ranked just outside the top ten. He believes that clay is his best surface, which we’ll find out soon enough as we head into the European grind. He’s done sneaking up on people; there are losses coming, maybe even some disappointing ones. His game is dazzling but imperfect and still developing, and it will now be studied and dissected on film by the best minds this sport has, by players capable of exploiting what they find. That’s tennis though—whatever gets thrown at him, he gets to respond. This back and forth will take us places we haven’t been in quite some time, and will help scratch past the surface of the sort of talent Wallace imagined but couldn’t name.


What a thrill then, after all this time, to name it. The re-embodiment of the game has arrived once again. All eyes will be on Carlos Alcaraz this week in Monte Carlo, but really, the game’s attention is his for the foreseeable future. He’ll carry tennis through spring and into summer. Soon enough, I think he will carry it wherever he likes.