Take time away to prepare. Relentlessly come forward to pressure. Get under your opponent’s skin.

Carlos Alcaraz survived a blistering attack from Jan-Lennard Stuff to win the Mutua Madrid Open final 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 on Sunday with something resembling his B or C-level game. It certainly wasn’t his A game, as Struff swarmed the net and mentally rattled the 20-year-old’s cage. But it’s a testament to the Spaniard’s mental toughness that he was made to feel so uncomfortable on the court and still found a way to be first over the finish line.

The match was very much dictated by Struff, who came to the net a staggering 52 times in three sets, winning 33 points up front (63 per cent). That was vastly superior to the German’s win percentage at the back of the court, which ended up at just 43 per cent (32/75).

Struff’s harrowing forays forward created discomfort and despair at times for Alcaraz. Struff turned the Magic Box into a pressure cooker and was on a roll early in the third set, holding break point on Alcaraz’s serve at 1-1, Ad out. Alcaraz saved break point and won seven of the next nine points to break Struff and surge to a 3-1 lead in the deciding set. That sequence proved to be the most pivotal in the final.

Alcaraz Serve Direction
Alcaraz served primarily to Struff’s backhand return, making the German hit 70 per cent (58/83) backhand returns for the match. That was mainly due to Struff successfully crushing his forehand return at the start of the match. Struff’s initial seven forehand returns in Set One produced one return winner and forced four forehand Serve +1 errors from Alcaraz. Alcaraz cleverly moved the battle to the backhand return, where he extracted 10 return errors in Set 1, five in Set 2, and critically, 10 again in the Set 3.

Losing serve at 1-2 in the third flipped the momentum and gave Alcaraz a new lease of energy from the partisan crowd. Struff’s backhand return suffered, as he failed to put seven of his last eight backhand returns of the match in the court. In the third set, Struff hit only four forehand returns and 20 backhand returns. Alcaraz finally had a strategy he could sink his teeth into.

Return Location
In stark contrast, Alcaraz only made contact with three returns for the match within four metres of the baseline. He was typically six metres behind the baseline or more, trying to take big cuts at returns. Alcaraz didn’t make contact with any returns inside the baseline.

Struff, on the other hand, made contact with all second-serve returns around two metres inside the baseline and only made contact with one first-serve return further back than one metre behind the baseline. Struff even made contact with 10+ first-serve returns inside the baseline.

Struff was playing a north-south match. Alcaraz was much more about trying to dip returns below the height of the net to force errors, and also pass on the next shot.

Alcaraz Passing Shots
In similar fashion to the serve targets, Alcaraz also directed his focus to Struff’s backhand volley when the German came forward. Overall, Struff hit 15 forehand volleys and 28 backhand volleys. Struff hit three forehand volley winners while only yielding two forehand volley errors. The backhand volley contributed eight winners but committed 10 errors.

With Struff serving at 1-2, 30/40, in the third set, he served and volleyed behind a first serve. He dug out a low forehand volley but found himself too close to the net with little reaction time against Alcaraz’s forehand down-the-line passing shot. Struff’s reflex backhand volley flew over the baseline and Alcaraz seized the momentum he needed to take the title.

We are used to witnessing Alcaraz produce such a high level in finals and play the match on his terms. In many ways, it is even more impressive to see him have to fight himself and struggle mightily against Struff to find a way to win.

In many ways, Alcaraz had to conquer himself first in order to conquer Struff.