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Carlos Alcaraz Survives Early Test in Paris, Seb Korda on Rise and Russian Ban Raises Questions

In this week’s mailbag, Jon Wertheim breaks down the talents of two young stars on the ATP Tour and answers your questions around Wimbledon’s ban of Russian players.

PARIS — Four days into the French Open, here are some early thoughts and answers to some of your questions.

Is Carlos Alcaraz the real deal?

Jon,

I’ll cut to the chase. How good is Carlos Alcaraz? I hope really good. But it seems like for 100 years we are being sold a player who is good, but not great. (Remember Baby Fed?) I understand the need for new blood but calling him the co-favorite with Djokovic and AHEAD OF NADAL seems ridiculous!

Thanks,
Freddy in Tennessee

Carlos Alcaraz

Alcaraz is now 30–3 this year in match play.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played his final match Tuesday afternoon on the big court. He, of course, played gamely. At age 37, his body just gave out and he lost in straight sets against Casper Ruud. Afterward, there was a poignant retirement ceremony—the French know how to do adieu. The commentary was mostly, “A wonderful player who had the misfortune of having a career coincide with the Big Three,” a capstone of so many other players to follow.

Which brings us to Alcaraz. He is good. Really good. Like, really good. You don’t go 30–3 so far in 2022 and win the Miami Open and beat Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev in succession to win Madrid and … you get the point … without being a smoldering talent. 

Beyond the stats, RPMs and metrics, Alcaraz also passes the naked-eye test. You watch him play and you can see he’s different. His shotmaking and selection. His weight of shot. His variety. His fearlessness. There is ineffable quality that says, “He ain’t like the rest.” That was especially evident Wednesday. Alcaraz didn’t have his best stuff against inspired veteran Albert Ramos-Viñolas, but he scrapped and clawed his way back after facing a match point in the fourth set to win in five. He’ll face American Seb Korda (more on him shortly) in the third round.

Tennis is binary insofar that there are wins and losses, but not all wins are the same. On Wednesday, Alcaraz played four hours and 34 minutes and had more than 350 points. In a perverse way, this might be a more meaningful win than him rolling through an overmatched opponent.

Carlito also benefits from timing. He is, of course, just 19. Djokovic is 35. Nadal turns 36 next week. Federer is 40. Even if some fraction of the Big Three retain their dominance for the next three years, Alcaraz will be all of 22. That’s a tennis baby.

Do I think Alcaraz will win this event? Not quite. Do I think he could? Sure. Do I think a combination of talent and timing work in favor of him becoming a generational player? Absolutely.

A young American on the rise

Jon,

Of all the young Americans, I keep hearing about Sebastian Korda. Can you explain and do you want to talk me out of pulling for him?

Stavros G.

I would never talk a fan out of rooting for a player they find appealing. Korda is undeniably a talent in ascent. (As I write this, Seb Korda is the last player to beat Carlos Alcaraz.) Seb has a big game, generates plenty of power and can dictate play, but, like his father, he is also athletic and can play defense. We spoke a bit on Tennis Channel this week—plug, plug—about areas of improvement. I would say it's less about ball-striking than closing matches, as he’s been on the losing side of tight matches:

  • 2021 Wimbledon: He lost 12–10 in the fifth set against Karen Khachanov in the round of 16.
  • 2021 ATP 500 in Washington, D.C.: A 6–7, 6–7 defeat against Jannik Sinner in the round of 16.
  • 2022 Indian Wells: Losing to Nadal, 7–6 in a decisive third set, in the second round.
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The 21-year-old Korda is progressing nicely. Winning some tight matches will only accelerate his rise.

The case for 32 seeds

Jon,

I can’t believe you are in favor of 32 seeds. Upsets make this sport! Why protect the top players?

Camille Blythe

I am in favor of 32 seeds, but it’s more about the 17–32 players than protecting the top seeds. This is a brutal, and costly, sport. Give the 17–32 players the reward (and payday) of not having to face a higher-ranked opponent until the third round. There are plenty of opportunities for upsets. But with 32 seeds, the best players get some protection, the tournaments get some hedge against stars departing early and the 33–128 players can still make their mark.

Why does French Open begin on a Sunday?

Jon,

I turned on the television Sunday and there you were. That was fine, but I wonder why the French Open starts on a Sunday? And how long has this happened?

Joan, Indy

I like your use of “fine.” The French Open has started on Sunday for 20 years now, but it began as a “soft open,” as they say in restauranting. I heard one story of a player being asked if he wanted to play on the “Sunday family session,” and he committed before realizing it was not some glorified Kids Day, but rather an official match played in casual surroundings. But “First Sunday” has become a legit session. Ons Jabeur* and Alcaraz were among those in action this past Sunday. My question: Why aren’t all the majors doing this? The four tentpoles are just that: tentpoles. Why not wrap around as many weekends as possible?

(*No Jabeur questions, but imagine this: You are the second favorite with the oddsmakers. You’ve had a wonderful season thus far. You speak French, have French fans and this is the event closest to your home. And then … you are out of the tournament by lunchtime Sunday, 14 days from the final you envisioned playing in. This is such a brutal sport, even for the most talented and accomplished players. To me, that makes it more compelling, not less, but too often we gloss over the mental rigors and resets it requires to go far in these tournaments.)

No easy paths around Russian player ban

Fernando speaks truth to tennis not politics. However, the tennis governing bodies and tournament heads should stay out of politics. Trying to do the “right thing” causes substantial inequities, hurts innocent tennis players, distracts from the sport and is simply unfair.

The one and only Fernando

This letter seems to allude to Wimbledon’s ban of Russian players, the ATP and WTA tours’ response to the war in Ukraine. It has been a big topic so far. Here’s the problem: The British government put the All England Lawn Tennis Club and Wimbledon organizers in an unwinnable position. Hammered by charges of harboring oligarchs in “Londongrad,” and rightly offended by Russia’s invasion, Prime Minister Boris Johnson needed to respond—and the last thing he and his government would want is a Russian player raising a trophy on Centre Court.

Wimbledon organizers, meanwhile, did not want a repeat of the Australia fiasco. Different issue, of course, but the tournament and government were at odds and chaos ensued. Wimbledon then had a choice: “Do we say, ‘Hey, look, we’re just following policy,’ or do we assert some moral authority and position this as a reaction to an unjust war and a monstrous autocrat?” Wimbledon chose the latter.

Hey Jon,

Have a question for you: Do you think that the bosses at the LTA and AELTC will see how pointless and counterproductive their Russian/Belarussian players eligibility stance is, now that Wimbledon has effectively been rendered an exhibition? Furthermore, since they claim that their only wish is to deny [Vladimir] Putin a chance to boast about Russian athletic success, isn't it ironic that they only managed to give [the] World Number 1 position to a Russian, since Djokovic cannot defend points from last year?

Kind regards,
Wen

I don’t buy this “exhibition” framing. It’s still Wimbledon. It’s still a major. Crassly, the winner still receives millions of dollars and will always be recalled as a champion. Ask the average fan how many points the winner gets and they have no idea. An exhibition entails two players on opposite sides of the net for entertainment. The money doesn’t change based on who wins. There are no next opponents. There is no draw. There is no seeding. The idea that the stripping of ranking points neuters competitiveness is silly.

Your other point is a good one. No sport does irony like tennis. The idea that Wimbledon bans Russians so as to not glorify Russians and then that decision means a Russian will ascend to No. 1? Very on brand for this verkakte sport.

Why is it OK with ATP to ban unvaccinated players but not OK to ban Russian players? I know the knee-jerk answer is that players have a choice of vaccinating themselves but did not have a choice of where they hailed from but there is a precedent of banning South African players during Apartheid for the sins of their nation. This decision by ATP also seems designed to strip Novak of his chances to retain #1, considering Wimbledon (along with AO, where he was 9-0 in finals but was also not allowed to play) is his stronghold. Not surprising given Novak’s history with PTPA and given the strong influence Rafa wields at ATP. I understand that as a known severe Novak critic you will immediately reject my argument as meritless but I believe these ATP decisions do appear to be capricious.

Kashi

First, I am not a “Novak critic,” severe or otherwise. He is admirable in a thousand ways. I think he acted irresponsibly during the pandemic. We should be able to hold opposing/conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time.

Second, I think you answered your own question. A player chose not to be vaccinated. That’s much different from a blanket ban on players from one country.

Jon,

Help me understand why players care so much about ranking points. Wouldn’t they want to play this event or the prestige and prize money? What am I missing?

Clark T.

A few points here. 1) For context, the players and tours believe the majors have too much clout. After Wimbledon unilaterally decided to ban players from one country, most players thought some response—“consequences,” Novak Djokovic called it—was in order. Players were not agreeable to a boycott, so stripping ranking points was the next best thing. 2) Ranking points do matter. I was told this week that, on average, 430 ranking points separate the No. 20 and No. 30 players, so removing points at a major is hugely significant.

The unbalanced draw at Roland Garros

Question for your French Open mailbag, s’il vous plait. In what tennis world should Novak and Rafa be meeting in a Grand Slam Quarterfinal? Come on, Roland Garros. They need to be on opposite sides of the draw.

Mon Dieu!
Dominic

When the French Open decided to follow the rankings and disregard subjectivity or even surface track records in seeding players, they left themselves vulnerable to this outcome. I do agree it is absurd that the three biggest contenders (by far) are all in the same half. “Top heavy” doesn’t describe it. A thought exercise: Are seedings meant to reward past performance or predict outcome?

Let him eat … cake?

Jon,

What's the story about the cake they gave Novak Djokovic for his 1000th win in Italy? Did the tournament director make it??? You can't tell me that's a professionally made cake. I mean, if it's a situation where a local school home economics class made it, then that's cool and sweet and I'm sorry for making fun of it. But. Maybe an intern or a new assistant was assigned to take care of the cake. However, in sitcom-esque hilarity, they dropped the beautiful, artistic, intricately designed cake an hour before the match. So they rushed to the nearest supermarket and bought a sheet cake and some red icing and wrote 1000 themselves. "No one will ever notice..."

Thanks,
Dan B from Baltimore, MD

It was a sheet cake from Ralphs.

Take us out, Megan …

Wanted to submit this book recommendation for Mailbag consideration. It comes out May 31. I got a sneak peek, and it’s fantastic. Essential Tennis is the first new tennis instruction book to come out in a long time. People are still relying on classics like Winning Ugly and The Inner Game of Tennis, which are great, but a lot has changed. … For Milwaukee (or Chicago) readers, Ian is giving a rare clinic at McKinley Park on May 31, followed by a book signing at Boswell Book Company.