By Sigurd Neubauer
He did not do particularly well at the 2022 French Open, but the world of tennis – and with it his growing fanbase – are expecting Carlos Alcaraz, 19, to dominate the sport for at least the next decade.
“Alcaraz shows tremendous respect for the game. He may even emulate the three greatest players of men’s tennis of all time by adopting their training methodologies,” explains Vesa Ponkka, the President of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) at College Park, Maryland.
“Alcaraz will be a superstar for at least the next 10 years, and he will be winning a lot,” Ponkka predicts.
“He’s the best mover in the world and competes well. He has a great attitude and is not afraid of taking risks and gives all what he has, and it is exiting to keep watching him.”
“Witnessing Alcaraz’s ascent is an exciting time for people who love the game as a superstar is evolving in front of our eyes,” Ponkka says while adding that “it feels the same way as when Rafael Nadal was 17.”
While “Nadal is amazing, he won’t be able to dominate the game forever,” he adds. Alcaraz “will take over in the near future.”
Nadal, meanwhile, handedly won the 2022 French Open, his 14th title at Roland-Garros, and his 22nd career Grand Slam.
The 36-year-old, along with rivals Novak Djokovic, 35, and Roger Federer, 40, have not only dominated men’s tennis over the past decade but transformed the sport altogether. Nadal, for instance, was able to win at Roland-Garros despite multiple injuries. He did it without much feeling in his foot, according to The Sporting News.
Federer, who did not participate at the 2022 French Open, first distinguished himself on the junior circuit. In 1998, he first joined the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour as a teenager. The following year, he made his Grand Slam debut at the French Open.
Djokovic, who lost to Nadal at the French Open, has won 20 Grand Slam titles including at Roland-Garros in 2016 and 2021.
Federer, who is attempting to recover from the third knee surgery, is tied with Djokovic for 20 Grand Slam titles.
Yet, ahead of the French Open, the world of tennis kept a close eye on its next wonderkid, Alcaraz of Spain, who is currently ranked as number seven in the world by the ATP.
Arriving at Roland-Garros after having won the 2022 Miami Open, where he defeated Casper Ruud, 23, of Norway in the final, the Spaniard also won the 2022 Madrid Open where he defeated Nadal, Djokovic and Alexander Zverev, 25, of Germany in consecutive days.
No wonder expectations were high for Alcaraz going into the French Open.
Zverev’s ATP ranking is number two in the world while Ruud is number five.
During the French Open, however, Zverev defeated Alcaraz by 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7), a game that lasted three hours and 18 minutes.
Nadal defeated Zverev during the semi-finals after the German was forced to withdraw because of an ankle injury. In the final, Nadal easily defeated Ruud by 6-3, 6-3, 6-0.
But to fully understand what Alcaraz represents and his enormous potential, we spoke to one of America’s preeminent coaches, Vesa Ponkka.
Ponkka, who has coached some of America’s top junior players over the past 20 years, explains that “it is only a matter of time before Alcaraz becomes one of the best in the world.”
“It is difficult to detect any weaknesses in his game,’ he says, explaining that it applies to Alcaraz’s tactical and technical skills as well as his physical and emotional abilities. “Few players have these attributes when they’re so young,” Ponkka adds.
On Alcaraz’s loss to Zverev in the quarter-final, Ponkka says that playing in it is “already great,” but adds because the Spaniard “has been beating ‘everyone’ in the world during the four weeks leading up to Roland-Garros, he was under tremendous pressure. “Zverev was able to take advantage of it, and that’s all it was,” he explains.
The expectations that Alcaraz would do well – and perhaps even win at Roland-Garros – were created this spring,” Ponkka says.
“Externally, the expectations have been higher and higher, which forced him to deal with pressure, and he’s still young.” This is what happened to Alcaraz, Ponkka says about his loss to Zverev.
In Alcaraz’s game against fellow Spaniard Albert Ramos Viñolas – which lasted more than four and half hours and was the longest Alcaraz had ever played – he won by 6-1, 6-7(7), 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4.
On Alcaraz’s victory of Ramos Viñolas, Ponkka says that Alcaraz is learning how to deal with the situation where he’s the favorite. “Before, he was the hunter, but now, his opponents are hunting him.” In the game, Ramos Viñolas “had everything to gain and nothing to lose, which is why the game initially tightened.
“At the top level, it is the mental and emotional control – as opposed to the technical aspects of the game – which determines its outcome,” Ponkka explains.
The veteran coach has “no question in his mind” that Alcaraz has the ability to deal with the mental and emotional aspects of the game.
For Alcaraz to strengthen his mental and emotional control, Ponkka explains that he has the best trainer in the world, namely fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, 42, who himself was a former number one in the world.
Ferrero won the French Open in 2003.
Ferrero, Ponkka explains, is helping Alcaraz with taking the pressure away as he moves away from his comfort zone. As Alcaraz is getting more experienced, it is just a matter of time before he masters the pressure from playing at the very top level, Ponkka adds.
“We will see if Alcaraz can play until his mid 30s. Players nowadays are taking better care of their bodies. The combination of better training and dieting provides players with a few more years to their career,” he says.
The top three players – Nadal, Djokovic and Federer “are always willing to learn new things, which keeps them mentally and emotionally strong,” Ponkka says. He adds that their records demonstrate that they are “the best learners in tennis history.”
Ponkka predicts that the next generation will emulate their examples, but when it comes to Alcaraz, he says that it is still too early to tell whether he will rise all the way to the top.
“All the signs are there for him to have a long career. But when the big money comes in, and he defends titles, that’s when the pressure comes in — if he can handle all of that – he can have a long career because he’s a great athlete,” Ponkka explains.
It’s all about the team
For Alcaraz to get to the ultimate level, he needs to surround himself with quality people. In practice, as the big money comes in, Alcaraz needs a team that has his best interests in mind.
“They – his team – have the biggest influence on his career. At this point, it is not about what you know, but about what you’re doing,” Ponkka says.
“The best players pick the right people around them. They have long-term members of their teams; this is the case for Nadel and Federer,” he adds.
Ponkka also believes that the next generation of men’s tennis will emulate the top three as their respective modus operandi has proven to a successful one. All of them have invested in the quality of their people, many of whom have been with them for years, a trend that Ponkka expects will continue.
Alcaraz grew up in the southern Spanish city of Murcia. He began to play tennis at the Real Sociedad Club de Campo de Murcia where his father, Carlos Alcaraz González, was director of the tennis academy, according to The Guardian.
“The father has done a great job; Carlos has a developed a great attitude. He shows respect for his opponents and for the game, and he’s looking up to Nadel, who is humble and the best player of all time,” Ponkka says.
Nadel’s humility is anchored in the values and principles that his sporting family provided him from the very beginning, the coach adds.
Spanish tennis culture
We conclude our interview by discussing Spain’s tennis culture and why the country has produced so many of the world’s top players.
“Tennis is the second most popular sport in Spain after soccer,” Ponkka says while adding that “Nadal is the greatest player who ever played.” This is where “the great attitude” about the game comes from in Spain, he says. There is also a culture where coaches – former tennis pros themselves – give back.
“Spain has a rich tennis tradition with many good coaches who teach kids to play and compete the right way.”
Some 15-20 years ago, Spain developed elementary pro-tournaments which provided young players the opportunity to compete nationally instead of having to spent “lots of money” on traveling internationally, Ponkka says.
“The same thing is now happening in Italy,” he adds.
Spain is able to get its former top players to give back and get involved in the game. This not only includes Ferrero, with whom Alcaraz has worked since 2018, but Sergi Bruguera and Carlos Moyá are also giving back. Moyá works with Nadal, Ponkka says.
“In the United States, we can do much better on this,” he concludes.
About Vesa Ponkka
For more than 20 years, Vesa Ponkka has been the driving force behind the JTCC’s coaching. His coaching philosophy is straightforward and direct: “Trust your Training.” The coach continues to train top junior players who have achieved #1 rankings, All-American honors, and have won major titles in national, NCAA, ITF and professional competition. Ponkka also directs long-term strategic planning, project implementation, as well as manages and mentors staff members. He earned both an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and an MBA from the University of Tennessee.