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Carlos Alcaraz works on a different kind of transition game

I naturally have a running dialogue with the founder of Tennis With An Accent, Saqib Ali. Since he created this site, Saqib and I communicate on numerous occasions throughout the year. We have been in regular contact for four and a half years or so, talking tennis and other things.

One topic Saqib knows well — it was the source of one of our more spirited disagreements over the years — is post-Wimbledon clay tournament scheduling. Fabio Fognini did this and stumbled in the summer hardcourt season. Dominic Thiem did this and struggled to an extent, but then broke through on hardcourts when he memorably pushed Rafael Nadal in the 2018 U.S. Open quarterfinals.

Some tennis players take the David Ferrer/Nikolay Davydenko approach to the calendar: Play everywhere, play often. It’s true that the Big 3 have won so many majors because they schedule around the majors, but it’s also true that not everyone is — or can become — the Big 3. How should tennis players schedule?

Carlos Alcaraz offers a very interesting case in 2022.

Juan Carlos Ferrero and the Alcaraz team clearly believe that a Davydenko-like schedule is good. They want Alcaraz to play often, get exposed to situations, endure a punishing schedule, and learn lessons as a result. Given that Alcaraz is just 19, I can see the wisdom in that.

However: One can make the argument that if major championships are winnable, one should schedule in a way which maximizes the opportunity to win. Many will say — and I agree — that the 2022 U.S. Open is very winnable for Alcaraz, especially with Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev out of the picture and Rafael Nadal in a less-than-ideal position to win, given his recent injury. Therefore, Team Alcaraz’s decision to play post-Wimbledon clay could be viewed as foolish.

We have a clear tension, everyone: Schedule tournaments to build Alcaraz’s fitness and knowledge base for the long haul, or schedule so he is in the best position to win the title in New York this September? It’s a tough question. One can see the merits of each approach. Alcaraz should become better in the long run as a result of this “Hard Knocks” tour. It’s easy to see the parallels between 2022 Alcaraz and 2021 Iga Swiatek. Last year, Swiatek learned about the grind of tour life, then had a good but arduous Australian Open at the start of the new year, and then took off like a rocket, soaring to the top of women’s tennis. She will be the clear women’s favorite at the U.S. Open. Going through hardships in 2021 prepared her for 2022. Ferrero and Team Alcaraz clearly think Alcaraz can blossom in 2023 after enduring tough times in 2022. It all makes sense.

But: Will this great chance to win the 2022 U.S. Open slip away? Overextended scheduling could leave Alcaraz overcooked.

Ah, but that’s why Wednesday’s loss to Tommy Paul is good for Carlos. He won’t be overcooked. He gets to rest for a week before Cincinnati. He gets to process a lot of information. He also knows that the transition from clay to hardcourts was not — and is not, and will not be — as smooth as he might have thought.

That’s a great set of lessons for Carlos, all while he gets more rest. This is a very good loss. It actually improves his U.S. Open preparation while offering another teachable moment.

Even if he falls flat in New York, watch out for him in 2023. Carlos’s transition game is very much a work in progress, but one can see the long-term vision his team has in mind for him.

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