PARIS — When the future No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero was 19, he came to Roland Garros for the 1999 French Open qualifying tournament and lost in the first round.
His pupil, Carlos Alcaraz, is on a more accelerated timetable. At 19, Alcaraz has arrived in Paris as the No. 6 seed in the main draw and one of the clear favorites.
With his all-action style, Alcaraz, the emotive Spanish teenager, plays as if plugged into some renewable source of energy and already has won four titles this season. He beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back on red clay in nerve-jangling duels in Madrid that seemed as much a tribute to Alcaraz’s appetite for combat as to his incandescent talent.
On Friday, two days before the start of the French Open, a photo of Alcaraz, roaring with his right fist clenched, occupied nearly all the space on the front page of L’Équipe, the leading French sports publication.
The word is justifiably out. Now, it is time to learn whether Alcaraz, who is in the top half of a top-heavy men’s draw, can manage the moment and the grind of best-of-five-set matches in just his sixth Grand Slam tournament.
“If everything stays normal, and there is no injury, I think he is absolutely ready for best of five,” Ferrero said in an interview this week. He added: “His character on the court is so big. He loves to go for the big points and for the big moment and is one of the few guys that you can see who is like this.”
Since the Big Three — Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer — took collective command of the men’s game in the late 2000s, this is the first time that a next-generation player has come into a major men’s tournament with this level of buzz and momentum.
“It seems to me, he’s not feeling the pressure, but let’s see when the time comes,” Ferrero said. “I have experience with that. I talk to him a lot. I think his commitment to practice and compete is the same as ever. So, let’s see where the limit is for him. And let’s see if he has no limits.”
Ferrero, 42, who won the 2003 French Open and was ranked No. 1 the same year, knows more than most about scaling tennis summits. He has coached Alcaraz since 2018 out of his academy in Villena, Spain, in the stark countryside near Alicante that is long on dust and hilltop castles and short on modern-age distractions.
When he is not traveling on tour, Alcaraz, who is from El Palmar, a suburb of Murcia, boards at the academy on weekdays before making the hourlong drive to spend weekends with his family.
“Here we are really tranquilo,” or calm, Alcaraz said in a recent interview in Villena. “Here it’s tennis, tennis and more tennis. The town is five minutes away by car, but in reality it’s farther than that.”
Ferrero has been well aware of Alcaraz’s potential since he first saw him in a low-level professional tournament in Murcia at age 14. Ferrero has taken a considered and caring approach to developing Alcaraz’s game. They are clearly close, which showed during the Miami Open in March when Ferrero surprised Alcaraz before the final after traveling from Spain following his father’s funeral.
In training, the focus is on accentuating Alcaraz’s varied game: He spends a great deal of time at the net and in transition, not just at the baseline. In terms of hours on court, the goal is quality over quantity, which preserves Alcaraz’s body for the long run while emphasizing intensity.
“The way you practice will affect the way you play,” Alcaraz said. “If you don’t train every ball with that intensity and seriousness, how are you going to know how to do it in a match?”
Ferrero tries to draw on his own experience and mistakes. He soared to the top but peaked early at age 23, before falling back because of injuries and the rise of Federer and Nadal. After winning the French Open in 2003, he never advanced past the third round there before retiring in 2012.
Ferrero sometimes did not heed his body’s signals and overplayed, which factored into Alcaraz’s decision to withdraw from the Italian Open earlier this month after winning back-to-back tournaments on clay in Barcelona and Madrid. The goal was to give Alcaraz time to recover from the sprained right ankle and blister on his foot that surfaced in Madrid but also to give him a break from the commotion and inevitable French Open questions before Paris.
“Let’s just say that he wanted to go to Rome, but let’s just say also that he was thinking of the future, of what was best for him to arrive at Roland Garros at 100 percent,” Ferrero said.
After winning in Madrid, Alcaraz took three days off and returned home to El Palmar, where he beamed and brandished the Madrid trophy on the balcony of his family’s apartment with his parents behind him and a large crowd of fans gathered below, including a group of drummers.
One can only imagine the din in El Palmar if Alcaraz were to prevail in Paris.
Ferrero said they did unusually long training sessions in Villena — up to three hours — to prepare for best-of-five-set matches. On Tuesday, Alcaraz had one of his regular sessions at the academy with a Spanish performance psychologist, Isabel Balaguer.
“A lot of players get lost on the way trying to manage everything, and I think psychologists can help a lot to keep them on a good track,” Ferrero said. “It helps with establishing good routines on and off the court. Carlos does not do a lot of visualization. They work in another way, talking about the things that have happened to him, how to manage everything, how to stay calm and how to stay with the feet on the ground.”
That could be nearly as challenging as outlasting Djokovic from the baseline, but Alcaraz has emphasized that big success does not have to lead to a big head.
“Tennis is a team sport all the time except when you are on the court,” he said.
This moment in Paris stirs memories of Nadal, the ultimate Spanish prodigy, who arrived at Roland Garros on a roll in 2005 as the No. 4 seed and won his first Grand Slam title at 19. Nadal’s body of work was superior at that early stage. He had helped Spain win the Davis Cup in 2004 and won five tournaments on clay in 2005 before arriving in Paris. That was Nadal’s first French Open but only because he missed the tournament in 2003 and 2004 with injuries.
Alcaraz was only 2 years old at that point and not yet pounding balls obsessively in El Palmar against the hitting wall at his family’s sports club. But Alcaraz does remember the 2013 French Open semifinal, when Djokovic was up a break of serve on Nadal in the fifth set only to lose his edge and the match after dropping a point for touching the net after tapping a seemingly routine overhead winner.
“I watched plenty of tennis, but that’s my first really clear memory of a match,” Alcaraz said.
Nine years later, he looks like the biggest threat to Nadal and Djokovic at Roland Garros, where all three of them are in the top half of the draw. Alcaraz is clearly at home on hardcourts — he won the Miami Open this year — but grew up training almost exclusively on clay.
He already has played in the French Open: He lost in the third round last year to Jan-Lennard Struff, a veteran German. But Alcaraz’s game, strength and confidence have grown considerably since then.
“I see Carlos as a blend of the Big Three,” said Craig O’Shannessy, an Australian tennis-analytics specialist who was part of Struff’s team last year. “You’ve got the mentality and tenacity of Nadal and the exquisite timing and willingness to come to the net of Federer. And then you have the aggressive baseline play like Djokovic: the power and flexibility to hit big off both sides from the backcourt.”
For now, Alcaraz says his goal is to win one of the three Grand Slam tournaments remaining in 2022. He was beaten in the third round of this year’s Australian Open in a fifth-set tiebreaker by Matteo Berrettini, double faulting on match point.
“I think it was the right time to lose a match,” Ferrero said. “Maybe he could have won and gone on to the semifinals like Berrettini, but maybe that would not have been as useful as a loss.”
Four months later, after four titles, coach and pupil sound less inclined to see the bright side of defeat. Ferrero already has gone all the way in Paris, and as Alcaraz spoke at the academy in Villena, he did so in a room filled with Ferrero’s trophies, including the smaller model of the Coupe des Mousquetaires presented to the men’s champion at Roland Garros.
“They should have given him the big one,” Alcaraz said with a chuckle. “I was a bit young to remember some of these, but this place is full of memories and important trophies to Juan Carlos. It’s obviously an inspiration. I hope one day I can match it or go past it.”