Carlos Alcaraz revealed on Thursday that he finds Serena Williams inspiring.
He might also be beginning to understand what it is like to walk in her shoes.
Following her thrilling second-round win over Anett Kontaveit, Williams said she had competed practically forever as a marked woman.
“I just feel like I have had a big red X on my back since I won the US Open in '99,” she admitted. “It's been there my entire career, because I won my first Grand Slam early.”
For Alcaraz, this has only seriously been the case in 2022, a season in which he has soared from 33rd to fourth in the rankings.
Unlike Serena, he is yet to win a Grand Slam title. The Spanish teenager has nevertheless become one of the game’s hottest commodities after scooping four titles, including Masters trophies in Miami and Madrid – the latter at which beat both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
By the time he arrived at Roland Garros, the hype was at fever pitch, with many predicting he would win the entire tournament. He came close, reaching the quarterfinals before being stopped by Alexander Zverev.
Zverev that day seemed especially motivated to tackle Alcaraz, and stop the juggernaut that had taken the sport by storm.
After two wins this week at the US Open, Alcaraz finds himself in the third round, up against yet another opponent who feels similarly.
“It's definitely someone I have wanted to play. I'm going to bring in my best. I'm really excited to go out there, compete, and show what I can do,” said Jenson Brooksby, who upset Cincinnati champion Borna Coric to book his date with Alcaraz.
“I'm feeling very confident heading into this one.”
This is the new normal for Alcaraz. He must now compete knowing opponents are gunning for him, while trying to maintain the level that has brought with it new expectations from both fans and commentators.
Since that Roland Garros loss to Zverev, there have been no more titles. No more victories over top-10 players, after winning seven straight earlier in the year.
These mounting expectations came to a head at the Montreal Masters in August, where, as the No.2 seed, he blew a 7-6 4-1 lead in his opening-round match against Tommy Paul to eventually lose in three.
“It was the first time that I couldn't handle the pressure,” he later shared on Twitter. “I have to be ready to have this pressure, to have this kind of moments, and to learn how to handle it!”
It was the first time that I couldn't handle the pressure… I have to be ready to have this pressure, to have this kind of moments, and to learn how to handle it! ?? pic.twitter.com/dLypEV1Ihg— Carlos Alcaraz (@carlosalcaraz) August 10, 2022
It seems he is learning.
In the days before this US Open, Alcaraz said instead of focusing on the pressure created by external expectations, he would reframe it as pressure to enjoy every match and show his best tennis. “If I don't feel that pressure as a bad part, I will go forward,” he explained.
So, after a commanding second-round victory over Federico Coria on Thursday at Arthur Ashe Stadium: did he enjoy the experience, and produce his best tennis?
“I would say yes,” he answered.
If Alcaraz was to feel the pressure anywhere, it was going to be here in New York.
The US Open last year was where it all began for him, thanks to his five-set upset win over third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and eventual run to his first major quarterfinal.
It was at that moment those expectations began to grow, and that X first appeared on his back.
Daniil Medevdev, who went on to win that 2021 US Open title, slightly pointedly referred to him as the “famous Alcaraz” during a press conference at Roland Garros.
It was perhaps a nod to the extensive hype surrounding the Spanish teen in 2022, but given Alcaraz’s brilliant results and incredibly high ceiling, such hype seems justified.
Another strong run this fortnight at Flushing Meadows would only further confirm this.
“I enjoyed playing today,” he said after beating Coria.
“Of course I (am) trying not to think about the pressure, the results, and of course the ranking. Just trying to be myself on court, trying to show my best level.
“I think I am getting better every day that I am playing here in US Open.”