PARIS — If Carlos Alcaraz is feeling the pressure of being the No. 1 seed at Roland Garros for the first time, he’s not showing it.
“I’m winning all the time because I am smiling,” he said after defeating Taro Daniel in the second round. “And I always said that smiling for me is the key of everything, you know.”
His opponents have noticed — and try to emulate it.
“I owe a lot to Carlitos, because he’s such a breath of fresh air,” No. 5-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas said after a practice session with Alcaraz. “The fact that just he’s so competitive and he’s always with a smile on his face, and almost so much charisma to him and so much positive energy that he distributes. I think that’s contributed a lot to his growth as a tennis player and his consistency too. … Last year during preseason I was, like, I want to apply that more into my game.”
Alcaraz, 20, has been the friendly assassin here at Roland Garros, breezing into the quarterfinals and smiling all the while. He has learned the importance of getting matches closed out as quickly as possible. Back at the US Open last September, where he won his first Grand Slam, he had to endure three five-set matches in a row on his journey to the final. Here in Paris, he has dropped just one set.
In his fourth-round straight-sets win over Lorenzo Musetti (6-3, 6-2, 6-2) on Sunday, he dropped his first service game, and made six unforced errors to go 2-0 down. He ended up closing out the set 6-3, making just three more unforced errors that set. It’s beautiful efficiency, and you can see the joy he has when he slots away a merciless winner, or after he has forced his way back into a surely doomed rally only to win the point through his blistering pace.
“There are people who say that I have blows [shots] from Rafa, shots from Djokovic, shots from Federer, because in the end it is what they have been used to seeing for 20 years, right?,” Alcaraz said after his second-round win. “But I do not define myself or have not sought to have anyone’s shots, but I’m simply 100% Alcaraz and that is what I like to think — that I am 100%.”
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Before the tournament started, the 20th anniversary of Juan Carlos Ferrero‘s 2003 triumph was celebrated. Ferrero now coaches Alcaraz, and the first question asked of Ferrero was on the sky-high expectations Alcaraz faces.
“Pressure is going to be there always,” Ferrero said. “I think people expect a lot of things from a lot of players, so I think we try to go our way, you know, believe in ourselves. I think of course he won a Grand Slam already, 19 years old, now 20, is gonna help him to believe that he can make it again. I think it’s all help, not more pressure.”
The No. 1 seeding can weigh heavy. Since 1990, just two first-time No. 1 seeds on the men’s draw have lived up to their billing and won the tournament: Gustavo Kuerten in 2001 and Jim Courier in 1992.
Nadal’s first time as No. 1 came in 2009 — by which time he’d already collected four of his eventual 14 French Open titles. That year, he lost in four sets to Robin Soderling in the fourth round. Federer’s first time as No. 1 seed here came in 2004 and he lost in the third round to Kuerten. Djokovic, who has won Roland Garros twice, was No. 1 seed for the first time in 2012 and met his match against Nadal in the final. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Stefan Edberg also fall into the same boat — none won the competition the first year they took the top seeding.
Alcaraz, when asked about the pressure of that No. 1 seeding, smiled. “It’s still crazy to see myself No.1 in a Slam,” he said. “At the same time [it] is great. [It] Is something that I work for to be there. Yeah, I’m really happy to be No. 1 seed here in Roland Garros.”
Ferrero talks of how Alcaraz is far more “mature” than last year. “As a player, I think he grows up like super-fast on the court,” Ferrero said. “Even before the match, like talking about the match, you can see that he’s more mature on all kind of areas on the court.”
This “super-fast” growth means Alcaraz’s reference points for his own evolution are at the front of his memory. He himself can recognize the progress he has made and defining moments where things became a little easier in the spotlight — like the experience of playing in front of packed crowds. He remembers how hard he found it against Nadal in the Madrid Open final in 2021.
“It was really, really tough,” Alcaraz said. “I can name a lot of matches that I didn’t feel comfortable playing on that. But I learned from that, and I always wanted to play in those stadiums, in that tournament, and I tried to feel comfortable playing on that. Right now, I feel great playing in the great stadiums.”
Up next is Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals. Alcaraz is on tennis’ greatest stage as the box office ticket in town, embracing everything with it. Pressure? He’ll just smile through it.
Carlos Alcaraz looks unbeatable — and has never lost his smile