Carlos Alcaraz might be struggling because Djokovic is in his head

(Photo by Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images)
(Photo by Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images) /

Carlos Alcaraz doesn’t lately resemble the player who was once ranked No. 1 on the ATP tour. He also doesn’t look like a player who at 20 years old has won two Grand Slams already and was supposed to be Novak Djokovic’s heir to the ATP crown for the next decade-plus. Alcaraz isn’t even playing like a top-5 player right now.

What’s going on? Sure, he took some time off in the last couple of weeks after claiming injury. He didn’t look hurt at all, though, in losing to Roman Safiullin in straight sets in the second round of the Rolex Paris Masters. Carlos Alcaraz simply got beat by a player who wasn’t beating himself the way Alcaraz was.

Alcaraz has now been bounced relatively early from the last two tournaments he has played. His second-round loss in Paris was his earliest exit from a tournament since he lost his first match at the Astana Open in early October 2022. After that loss, Alcaraz made it at least to the semifinals in 10 of his next 12 tournaments. In one of the tournaments he didn’t make the semis, the 2022 Rolex Paris Masters, he made the quarterfinals but then was injured in the second set against Holger Rune.

Carlos Alcaraz might be thinking too much about Novak Djokovic

Maybe we take Carlos Alcaraz for granted a bit. We forget he isn’t even old enough to drink legally in the United States. He would be only two years removed from high school. He achieved so much so quickly that maybe we tend to discredit a normal 20-year-old goes through some proverbial growing pains. Alcaraz’s game is elite, but maybe he isn’t yet mentally elite in terms of playing tennis because he hasn’t truly had to be most of the time: His game alone is enough to defeat opponents.

Part of the issue might simply be that Carlos Alcaraz is trying to be great and is focused on No. 1 and keeping that ranking for years to come but there is someone seemingly always in the way: Novak Djokovic. Alcaraz would already have an iron grip on the sport if not for the Serb. And Carlos Alcaraz talks about Djokovic a lot.

Meanwhile, the difference between when Djokovic was younger and just beginning his climb to earning 24 majors, Djokovic thought more about himself and how he could overcome his own tendencies in order to be great. Sure, there were Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer potentially in every tournament Djokovic would play, but Djokovic knew if he prepared and played his game, he had a very good shot of winning.

Every tennis player plays as much against themselves as against the other player. An unforced error here or there could be the difference in the match. Those kinds of things are mostly one’s own fault rather than the other player’s.

One reason Novak Djokovic has consistently won so many tournaments he enters is that he focuses on one match at a time and tries to beat the player on the other side of the net. He isn’t trying to beat a Federer or Nadal three matches down the path to the tournament title.

Carlos Alcaraz hasn’t seemingly learned this skill yet. He might be playing Safiullin but he is thinking about Djokovic. That’s no way to win enough to retake the No. 1 ranking from Djokovic, and after Carlos Alcaraz’s loss to Safiullin on Tuesday, the year-end No. 1 ranking seems rather hopeless for Alcaraz now.

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