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Spain's special tennis pipeline keeps producing great players

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As tennis players and fans turn towards the hard courts of the U.S. Open, the Wimbledon singles finals from this weekend will be long remembered.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

First off, on Saturday, for the first time ever, an unseeded woman won the tournament - Marketa Vondrousova from the Czech Republic. She beat fan favorite No. 6 ranked Ons Jabeur of Tunisia.

CHANG: And on the men's side, well, it's not hyperbolic to say that yesterday's match felt like David defeating Goliath.

FLORIDO: In a breathtaking match. set-five, tennis legend Novak Djokovic was taken down in a stunning upset. Here is the call from Wimbledon.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Djokovic is deposed. There's a new king of Centre Court.

FLORIDO: Carlos Alcaraz fell to the ground mid-court and put his hands to his face and sobbed tears of joy and pride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: He's beaten the best of all time. He's beaten a man who is virtually invincible on this court.

CHANG: At just 20 years old, Alcaraz is a relatively fresh face in pro tennis. This was just his fourth major as a pro. So to overtake Djokovic in the sport's most prestigious tournament so early in his career, Alcaraz described the moment as a dream come true on ESPN.

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CARLOS ALCARAZ: It's amazing for a boy, you know, 20 years old, I didn't expect you to reach, you know, these kind of situations really fast. I'm really, really proud.

FLORIDO: But as surprising as Alcaraz's victory at Wimbledon is, the Spaniard's meteoric rise to the top should not be all that unexpected. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Spain, there is a reason that Spaniards are so good.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Most tennis players hit a tennis ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENNIS RACQUET HITTING TENNIS BALLS)

SCHMITZ: Carlos Alcaraz seems to launch it.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Truly sensational - the man from Murcia steps up yet again.

(CHEERING)

SCHMITZ: The man from Murcia in southern Spain launches balls at angles that befuddle opponents. And when he's not hitting explosive forehands or a jumping backhand cannon, he's fond of changing the pace with flawless drop shots that send players scurrying to the net, usually in vain.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: How has he found that? No way.

(APPLAUSE)

SCHMITZ: When Alcaraz isn't dominating opponents, he trains here at a tennis academy nestled among orange and olive orchards, where it takes a series of decrepit one-lane roads through the sun-drenched countryside north of Murcia to get here.

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SCHMITZ: Antonio Cascales founded this academy, named after the first player he guided to No. 1 in the world, Juan Carlos Ferrero.

ANTONIO CASCALES: (Through interpreter) It's not the best site in the world for a tennis academy, but it's a place that's very peaceful, with a good climate.

SCHMITZ: The peace and quiet are ideal, he says, for focusing on tennis. Antonio Martinez Cascales is short, bald and enjoys quietly observing players. That's what he was doing seven years ago when he first saw Carlos Alcaraz play a match. The 13-year-old-boy lost to someone older, but he made a deep impression.

CASCALES: (Through interpreter) What I saw was a boy with a lot of talent, but a little anarchic. He didn't have a strict pattern of play, but you could tell right away he had promise.

SCHMITZ: Cascales says players from his home country tend to be harder working because of the surface they grew up hitting on.

CASCALES: (Through interpreter) In the 1970s, Spain built more than a thousand tennis clubs, all of them with clay courts. So for 50 years, Spanish players have grown up playing on clay. The surface slows down the pace of play, and it creates longer points. So you have players who learn how to work hard and play consistently.

SCHMITZ: The tennis court building boom that Cascales just mentioned, it was overseen by Spain's most ruthless dictator, General Francisco Franco.

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FRANCISCO FRANCO: (Speaking Spanish).

SCHMITZ: Franco, deeply unpopular in the West, was enamored with Spanish tennis champion Manolo Santana, who brought Spain international fame by winning the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the French Open. Chris Lewit, author of "The Secrets Of Spanish Tennis," says Franco was so inspired, he ordered the construction of thousands of tennis courts for the masses.

CHRIS LEWIT: Those investments a decade or two later paid off, and there was a huge tennis boom in Spain.

SCHMITZ: More players meant more coaches were needed. Lewit says two of them came up with training methods that were enshrined in national manuals distributed to Spain's local clubs. One coach was a ballroom dancer, and he used geometric drills to focus on footwork. The other coach is still at it.

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SCHMITZ: Lluis Bruguera, now 79 years old, coaches players here at an academy in Barcelona.

LLUIS BRUGUERA: (Through interpreter) I'm often asked, why are there so many top tennis players from Spain? Well, it's because their system is good, and the Spanish character is also good. It's no coincidence that practically every country in the world uses these exercises now to train their players.

SCHMITZ: Some coaches yell at their players, others lecture them. Bruguera asks them questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENNIS RACQUET HITTING TENNIS BALLS)

BRUGUERA: Where? Where? Where is it?

SCHMITZ: Where is your hand, Bruguera asks one player. The player raises his hand to show him. Bruguera shakes his head, clicking his tongue in disappointment. No, this is your hand, he says, pointing to the face of the player's racquet. Author Chris Lewit says Bruguera's training encompasses six pillars of what he calls the Spanish method. These include excellent footwork, defense and consistency. But one of the most important pillars, says Lewit, is mental.

LEWIT: All the young players in Spain are taught to suffer on the tennis court, which, if you're not from Spain, may sound a little odd or strange. But they really do believe that wholeheartedly, and it's a big part of their philosophy and culture - the tennis culture - in Spain, and also, to some extent, the culture itself.

SCHMITZ: And Lewit says one player, Rafael Nadal, exemplifies this aspect of Spanish tennis more than anyone.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #4: Oh, my words - absolutely incredible from Rafael Nadal.

(APPLAUSE)

SCHMITZ: He's not only the best Spanish player in history, but he's one of the best tennis players, period.

LEWIT: The mentality, the energy, the willingness to chase every ball and fight. You know when you're playing a Spanish player, it's going to be a long day at the office because they never give up. They never tire, and they're going to fight you all the way to the end.

SCHMITZ: Numbers seem to back this up. According to the Association of Tennis Professionals, Spaniards made up an average of 13 of the top 100 men's players each year for the past two decades. Compare that to an average of only nine American men, despite the U.S. having seven times the population of Spain.

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SCHMITZ: Back at the Juan Carlos Ferrero Academy, Alcaraz coach Antonio Cascales says he believes Alcaraz will become one of the next tennis greats, alongside Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

CASCALES: (Through interpreter) In the creativity he uses in a typical match, I'd compare him to Federer. But his tenacity and the way he fights to win a point, I'd compare him more Rafa.

SCHMITZ: And it's that Spanish fighting spirit, says Cascales, that usually wins out in the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENNIS RACQUET HITTING TENNIS BALL)

SCHMITZ: Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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