• Alcaraz-Gasquet and Djokovic draw against Australian first-round qualifier

On December 9, at the end of the Puente de la Purísima, Carlos Alcaraz was reunited with his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and the rest of his team at the Equelite Academy in Villena to start the preseason. He was coming off the best year of his life, with titles at Wimbledon and semi-finals at Roland Garros and the US Open; I had just come from a few days with the family in Murcia and a vacation in Mexico, in the sun of Los Cabos. Until this Tuesday, when he will make his debut at the Australian Open against Richard Gasquet, there were five weeks left so he could work from less to more, piano piano, without rushing. But in those first days of preparation, Alcaraz's intensity surprised everyone.

"Juan Carlos jokingly told him: 'Fuck, you've matured.' We've seen him very, very on. He has had his best pre-season, very, very good, super focused, very focused on work," Antonio Cascales, Ferrero's coach throughout his career and now part of the team of the number two in the world ranking, which arrives in Melbourne like never before, reveals to EL MUNDO.

Without official matches since November 18, when he lost in the semifinals of the ATP Finals to Novak Djokovic, Alcaraz has had time to predispose his physique and to iron out technical aspects before facing the year. As could be seen in the various exhibitions - the last one against Casper Ruud, on Friday - he has continued to improve his service mechanics, varied his placement on the return and raised his "consistency". It's what Juan Carlos has asked of him the most in these weeks of pre-season. Without losing your speed and strength, you need to be more consistent. If before I could put three balls in a row near the line, now I can put four or five. That will make him improve in every point, be even more dangerous," says Cascales, who concedes that his pupil's main challenge at the beginning of the season is on the ATP list. Winning the Australian Open is an obvious, undeniable goal, but Alcaraz above all "wants to try to get back to number one in the rankings". And it's not as far away as it seems.

2,200 points and a plan

Before the start of the competition in Melbourne, Djokovic leads Alcaraz by 2,200 points, but the first Grand Slam of the year should change that sum. The Serbian is defending the 2,000 points from his victory last season and the Spaniard is not defending anything because he did not play 12 months ago. Several combinations could take Alcaraz back to the top of the table, although all involve an early loss by Djokovic, who will start the tournament this Sunday (not before 09.00) against Dino Prizmic.

Whatever happens, the current number two will leave Australia closer to last year and, from there, the path is already known. In February he will return to the South American clay court tour, with the ATP 250 in Buenos Aires and the ATP 500 in Rio de Janeiro confirmed, in March he will defend his title at the Masters 1000 in Indian Wells and his semifinals at the Masters 1000 in Miami and in the spring he will return to Europe. Barcelona's Conde de Godó Trophy has already announced its return, so its 2024 will be identical to its 2023, at least at first. Then we'll see. Because another challenge for Alcaraz this season is to avoid the usual slump that he has always experienced from October, after the US Open.

Mark BakerAP

"This has to be a good year for him. He has had a great season and in 2023 he has already shown that he can handle the pressure, the expectations. Now he knows that at a certain point he runs out of gas and he can work on it," says Cascales about the phenomenon that at the age of 20 can already set very high goals such as, for example, taking over the four Grand Slams, already owner of a title at Wimbledon and another at the US Open.

The rivals and Ferrero's absence

Waiting for Rafa Nadal, Djokovic will be in front again, also his friend Jannik Sinner, Daniil Medvedev or thriving tennis players such as Holger Rune and on the sides, many dangers, such as injuries or a bad streak. In fact, this first time of the year is usually highlighted by coaches as the most dangerous due to the uncertainty before the start and the desire to start successfully. "It's not happening so much lately, but the Australian Open has always been the Grand Slam with the most surprises precisely because of that," Cascales analyzes that Alcaraz still has a lot to prove in Melbourne.

Beyond his absence last year due to a right leg injury, he was also unable to offer his best version in his two previous participations. In 2021, at just 17 years old, he beat Botic van de Zandschulp in his debut and then lost to Mikael Ymer, a guy so rare that he is now retired, at 24 years old, after being suspended for skipping doping controls. And in 2022 he beat Alejandro Tabilo and Dusan Lajovic and lost in the third round to Matteo Berrettini.

On the Australian indoor concrete, Alcaraz has one of his unfinished business and everything is ready for him to settle it. If anything, he has a drawback: this time he is not accompanied by Ferrero.


Having just undergone surgery on his left knee, the coach was on the verge of contradicting the doctors' recommendations and buying a ticket. The whole team had to insist that he rest. "Juan Carlos was stubborn that he wanted to leave, but the best thing is that he doesn't force it. The fact that he's not in Australia isn't the best, but with Carlos will be Samuel [Lopez], who has been with us in the academy all his life and is extremely trustworthy. The three of us, Juan Carlos, Samuel and I see tennis in the same way," says Cascales, who will take to Alcaraz's box on the South American tour and, from there, will continue throughout the year. In principle, expect a lot of celebrations. Even more so after the "best pre-season" in the life of the current number two in the world ranking.

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