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At French Open, Carlos Alcaraz is a star-in-waiting who may not wait much longer

Carlos Alcaraz plays a forehand return during a victory over Sebastian Korda. (Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

PARIS — With the score knotted in the fifth set of a French Open slugfest, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz was on a dead run, sprinting from one corner of the court to the other, chasing overhead slams blasted by a veteran opponent.

Each thunderstruck ball that Alcaraz managed to fire back felt like a mini-miracle in what seemed to be a hopeless attempt to keep the point alive — one overhead, another and another — until Albert Ramos-Vinolas plowed a backhand into the net, handing the youngster the pivotal service break.

Alcaraz thrust both arms to the sky as the crowd on Court Simonne-Mathieu erupted in cheers. Looking on from his box, coach Juan Carlos Ferrero never changed his expression. He simply put an index finger to each temple as if to say, “Keep your head in the game.”

Even without looking, his charge did precisely that, serving out that 4-hour-34-minute match to advance to the third round.

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For all of Alcaraz’s grit and power, what best explains how he has sped up the timetable of his heralded arrival as the sport’s next superstar is his uncommonly level head. For that, Ferrero, the 2003 French Open champion and a former world No. 1, deserves considerable credit.

Nicknamed “El Mosquito” during his 15-year career for his slight stature, speed and persistence, the 160-pound Ferrero was known for outsize courage on the court and uncommon humility off it. These are the qualities he has sought to instill in Alcaraz, who started training at his tennis academy in Spain at 15.

“He made the player that I am right now,” Alcaraz said of Ferrero after turning Friday’s widely anticipated third-round match against American Sebastian Korda into a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 romp. “[He gave me] the intensity I have to [have] during the two, three hours to be able to play in the Grand Slams or in these matches against the best players in the world — [to] keep focusing in every tournament, in every practice that I have.”

Since the 2022 season began, Alcaraz raced up the rankings to a career-high No. 6, calling to mind the teenage heroics of Rafael Nadal, his childhood idol and a fellow Spaniard, nearly two decades ago.

In February, he earned his first 500-level tournament win on the men’s pro tour, the Rio Open. In April, he won his first Masters 1000-level title — one rung down from the Grand Slams — at the Miami Open and received a congratulatory call from King Felipe VI of Spain.

Three weeks later, he vaulted into the top 10 after winning the Barcelona Open, which included an upset of then-fifth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas. Then came his Madrid Open tour de force, in which he achieved something no player has: beating Nadal, regarded as the greatest clay-court player in history, and top-ranked Djokovic back-to-back on clay. He toppled third-ranked Alexander Zverev to win the title.

Alcaraz’s next goal is winning a Grand Slam title. He is halfway there, into the fourth round at Roland Garros. But he faces a tough second week, placed in the stacked half of the draw that includes Djokovic, the defending champion, and Nadal, the tournament’s 13-time champion.

If he wins two more times to reach the semifinals, Alcaraz almost certainly will face one or the other, with Djokovic and Nadal on track to meet for the 59th time in their careers in the quarterfinals.

The eyes of the tennis world, no doubt, will be on that match and its implications for Djokovic’s quest to tie Nadal’s record 21 Grand Slam titles. But if Alcaraz takes a giant step in his evolution by winning his first Grand Slam here, he would relegate the Nadal-Djokovic narrative to subtext.

“I feel ready to compete against them in every single tournament, in every single surface,” Alcaraz said after beating the pair in Madrid. “[But] in a Grand Slam, it’s completely different … when you have to play the best-of-five sets.”

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Comparisons with Nadal are easy to draw.

Like Nadal, Alcaraz was reared in a small village in Spain: El Palmar in Murcia. His father was director of a local tennis academy, where Carlos learned to play.

At 15, he went to train at the academy Ferrero owns, where instruction is rooted in the values that defined his career: sacrifice, humility and respect.

Like Nadal, Alcaraz remains close to his family — many of whom were in Miami this spring and joined him on court afterward to celebrate his first Masters 1000 victory. And in Alcaraz’s comments, there are echoes of Nadal’s approach to tennis.

“To play to win … is my essence,” he recently said. “[I] fight till the very last ball.”

Still, he insists he feels no pressure from the comparisons.

“I know that there will never be another like Rafa in history,” Alcaraz recently said. “I am Carlos.”

The foundation of Alcaraz’s game, like that of Nadal’s, is his powerful forehand.

There are metrics that convey every aspect of its effectiveness. Forehand winners can be tallied. The forehand’s velocity can be computed, its court-placement plotted and its spin computer-simulated. But that cannot fully convey what makes Alcaraz such a handful for opponents.

A compact 6-foot-1 and 159 pounds, he is a terrific mover and can change direction on a dime. He’s strong enough to blast winners when knocked out of position. He has a full repertoire of shots — backhand slices, crisp volleys, lobs and devilish drop shots — and the creativity to use them all.

And he has the courage to use the least expected stroke, even if a high-risk shot, at critical moments in a match.

“Juan Carlos tells me that in the tough moments you have to play aggressive,” Alcaraz said after winning the 2021 Next Gen ATP Finals.

Through three rounds at the French Open, former players have fawned over Alcaraz’s range and inventiveness. Former No. 1 Mats Wilander, a three-time French Open champion, exulted on Eurosport over his slice backhand on clay. Former British No. 1 Tim Henman delighted in a serve-and-volley change-up.

Analyst Mary Carillo marvels at his drop-shot mastery, which cleverly follows a forehand wallop that knocks the opponent on his heels.

“You might know it could come,” Carillo said, “but you also have to prepare for the furnace blast that is his forehand.”

But the voice Alcaraz hears in his head is the counsel of Ferrero.

“I’m aggressive all the time,” he said after steamrolling Korda. “Doesn’t matter if I am losing, winning — close moment or not. I keep my style the whole match.”

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