Hitting the Links with Carlos Alcaraz

carlos alcaraz
Hitting the Links with Carlos AlcarazNick Remsen

It’s early March and Carlos Alcaraz is standing at the 17th hole of Shadow Creek, MGM’s Tom Fazio-designed golf course nestled in Las Vegas's northern reaches. The gusts, spurred by a blizzard striking the Sierra Nevadas, are intense. (Apparently we’re in the middle of the area’s worst windstorm in nearly 40 years.) But the landscape itself is glowing. Baked red rocks buttress the green, which is backdropped by a waterfall and preempted by a pond that crimps in the breeze. Yellow flowers gild the vignette. They’re nature’s version of the neon bulbs that frame the slot machines back on the Strip.

Alcaraz (officially Carlos Alcaraz Garfia)—the 20-year-old current No. 2 men’s tennis player in the world and, so far, two-time Grand Slam champion (the U.S. Open in 2022, Wimbledon in 2023)—steps up to the tee.

He’s wearing a Jordan snapback, a purple Nike pullover, fitted navy slacks, and black Nike golf shoes. Alcaraz has a great swing, and it has (mostly) worked for him as we’ve waded against the gales on Shadow Creek’s back nine. He hits a high ball. It’s cleanly struck, arcing through the wind. The ball lands within ten feet of the hole. Alcaraz turns on his heels, does a celebratory cha-cha dance, and flashes his famous ear-to-ear smile.

“I try to play as often as I can,” he tells me. “But it can be hard to find three or four hours of the day” when traveling during the season. Later, he’ll add that the sport helps him to disconnect from an increasingly—almost impossibly—busy life. “It’s good to, let’s say, forget about tennis a little bit,” he says.

Alcaraz is in Las Vegas for an exhibition tennis match against elder statesman Rafael Nadal, a fellow Spaniard. Dubbed The Netflix Slam, the live event was organized by the streamer with MGM Resorts and held at the latter’s Mandalay Bay complex. The Slam was flashy, glossy stuff—nearly reaching the fervor and decibel level of a major boxing match—that paired an established GOAT with a prospective GOAT.

As per, their meetup drew niceties.

“[Rafa] has that fighting spirit; he never gives up on the ball,” says Alcaraz when I ask him what he’s learned from Nadal. “[I look to] the way he finds solutions when things are not going well.”

A day before, when we hit the links at Shadow Creek, I watch the two of them arrive and take a quick tour of the clubhouse, interacting with an almost fraternal banter and ease. Las Vegas native and multi-Major winner Andre Agassi was there, too. He posted a photo of himself with Alcaraz and Nadal on Instagram, writing “Champions in town.” (I grew up chasing Agassi for autographs on the U.S. Open grounds in Queens–it was a surreal to see all of these guys together in such an uncrowded, non-tennis setting.) Later, when moderating a press conference between the two, Agassi would say of Alcaraz: “this guy is special.”

two men standing next to each other
In early March, Alcaraz defeated the great Rafael Nadal at the first-ever Netflix Slam.Nick Remsen

As March kicked off, there were signs that he’d been feeling the pressure—and rumblings across the press, X, and grandstand chatter suspected something was off. In the quarterfinals at January's Australian Open, Alcaraz lost in four sets to the lower-seeded Alexander “Sasha” Zverev. Later that month, in Buenos Aires, Alcaraz lost in straight sets to Nicolas Jarry, who is a strong player, no doubt, but one with a notably lower ranking. In February, Alcaraz withdrew early from a tournament in Rio de Janeiro due to a rolled ankle. He hadn't reached a final since last year’s Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, nor had he nabbed a title since Wimbledon in 2023. But his rival, Jannik Sinner? He’d won five trophies in the same timeframe.

Alcaraz’s mood seemed off, too. In Las Vegas, Alcaraz told the former pro and current correspondent Mary Jo Fernandez, “A lot of the times I try to have a smile on the court, but it doesn’t mean I’m enjoying [the game] so much.” Just two weeks ago, he admitted to diminished “confidence” and “so many doubts” before going into March's Sunshine Swing: A duo of high-profile tennis tourneys in Indian Wells, California and Miami, Florida.

But all of that was about to change.

Out on the course, Alcaraz's golf game betrayed exactly none of these insecurities. On another hole, his ball lies well below the green, which is raised high enough that we don’t see the pin. He hits an iron, this time directly into the harsh wind. It’s low and centered. He sprints up the hill to check, only to find that the ball stopped about eight feet out. “Sheeeeow!” Alcaraz yells, tracing the laser trajectory of the shot with a swift hand motion. (Turns out, he’s as animated on the greens as he is on court.)

Throughout all of this, Alcaraz’s coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and his agent, Albert Molina, look on. They’re mostly quiet and cross-armed, but you can tell they’re proud of their mentee—and that they’re happy to see Alcaraz enjoying himself. I should add: Ferrero is a good golfer, too, as is Nadal, a scratch handicap, who teed off before us. Nadal has a peculiar swinging motion, which almost looks like a golf version of a backhand, if that makes any sense at all. He draws the club outward as he starts, adding wingspan, just before arcing it over his shoulders.

Just two weeks after his Vegas appearance, Alcaraz broke his slump by winning Indian Wells (formally the BNP Paribas Open) for the second year in a row, defeating Daniil Medvedev in the final and fighting off the white-hot Sinner in the semis.

a man standing on a tennis court
Even one of the greatest active tennis players needs a break from the sport every now and then. Alcaraz hits the links when he wants to, as he says, "forget about tennis a little bit."Nick Remsen

It was a return to apogee form, with wild speed and supernova shotmaking in the way that only he can seem to execute when he’s on. Befitting of Alcaraz and the attention he garners, his run wasn’t without off-court occurrences that provided social media with a whole slew of new material.

A delay due to a swarm of bees deciding to make a hawk-eye camera their new hive? Yep... at Alcaraz’s quarterfinal match. Zendaya (starring in the tennis-themed Challengers, out in April) and Tom Holland, plus tennis superfan Charlize Theron, cheering in the stands? Yep... at Alcaraz's championship match.

Even before hoisting the trophy, there seemed to be a higher concentration of his trademark moments along the way—mostly the ones where he's downright beaming. In one example: A cat-and-mouse, highly-angled point between Alcaraz and Sinner yielded big laughs from both players. He was feeling it, again.

About that smile: It has become something of a signature for Alcaraz, whose affability and good sportsmanship have made him one of the most popular players on the men’s tour. Christopher Cleary, the multi-decade New York Times sports correspondent, wrote in his excellent newsletter, “Tennis & Beyond,” that Alcaraz is “tennis’s crowd pleaser in chief, filling stadiums and social media feeds.” Yet Cleary added (and this is another apprehension, among some) that the player “sometimes makes things more spectacular than they need to be.” Alcaraz himself has said he can put on a bit of razzle-dazzle, knowing that the crowds want—and love—to see it.

tennis mar 17 bnp paribas open
Alcaraz returned to exospheric form this past weekend, taking home the top trophy at the BNP Paribas Open.Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

What’s apparent, no matter how you feel about his melodrama, is that Alcaraz seems to know, reflexively, how to emit star power beyond his athleticism. He grins at the right moments, shouts when needed, and riles up audiences just when they want it most. It feels connective, and a far cry from some of the more tactical melodrama you'll see on tour, like that of Medvedev or Novak Djokovic, who can almost incense the stands. It's clear that Alcaraz has the god-given ability to nurture fame in addition to channeling his godlike physicality. “It’s an obligation we have to take, promoting our sport,” he says at Mandalay Bay. “We are not only tennis players. We need to take care of our sport, because it has given us so much.”

Speaking of tennis’s theatrical side: At Indian Wells, Netflix announced a docuseries solely around Alcaraz, with a premiere date in 2025. The company canceled Break Point (which featured multiple players), but the data gleaned from that vehicle undoubtedly informed the choice to greenlight an Alcaraz-only project.

In Vegas, Netflix’s VP of Sports, Gabe Spitzer, told me, “For us, the differentiator is that, with sports, we’re trying big to be an answer for casual fans or previously nonexistent fans.” MGM Resorts’ SVP of Sports, Lance Evans, echoed the sentiment: “Carlos just has it, the it factor that appeals to a wider audience.” These soundbites underscore a broad belief in Carlos Alcaraz the celebrity as much as in Carlos Alcaraz the athlete. In fact, come to think of it, when we teed off at Shadow Creek, there were a number of cameras and crew filming us–they were there for the new doc, as it turns out.

After a few holes, I give up, as my godawful game is delaying the group. (Apparently, Alcaraz plays fast throughout every discipline.) Going into the day, I thought the outing would be pretty low-key, but I was clearly wrong. It’s actually pretty serious: Alcaraz is all boundless energy, hopping over boulders as he chases down the (very few) balls he hits wide of the fairway. When I try to make small talk, he mostly avoids it, saying her prefers to focus on the game. At one point, we talk about padel, the increasingly popular sport that’s taking the U.S. by storm, but is well-established in Spain. (Think: Racquetball, tennis, and pickleball combined. Alcaraz has tried it.)

It’s clear that he’s there to contend, even if only against himself. This is where I see Alcaraz’s truest self shine through. It's when he flashes his teeth—not in a friendly way, but as a glimpse of the mettle and compulsion therein. Golf may be the place where he tunes tennis out, but he does not turn off his inner competitor. He’s going for it, even if the stakes are merely talking points for when we’re back in the clubhouse.

It’s this intensity away from the lights that, I think, is the gas for Alcaraz's engine on the court. Yes, he’s a charismatic, dazzling guy, yet beneath all of this is an instinctively vying, hyper-ambitious force of nature, as determined as the blizzard winds.

And if the result doesn’t go his way, in the end?

“Well,” he says later, “it’s still hard to get rid of the smile.”

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