In a year of memorable firsts for Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spaniard has transformed himself from being just another fresh face with immense potential to a genuine threat on the men’s tour and a favourite for the French Open.
His meteoric rise in 12 months was underlined by becoming the youngest ATP 500 champion in history at 18 and the youngest player to beat both Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the same claycourt event.
Last year, Alcaraz celebrated his 18th birthday with a match against his idol Nadal in Madrid but the dream scenario quickly turned into a nightmare when the 13-time French Open champion dismantled him 6-1 6-2 in just 78 minutes.
But this year, Alcaraz was better prepared and the change was evident as the teenager proved to be physically stronger and displayed maturity beyond his years in decisive moments.
He marked his 19th birthday in a whirlwind week in Madrid by beating three of the top five — Nadal, Djokovic and Alexander Zverev — en route to his second Masters title despite a sore ankle.
“I saw that the last time a player beat the top four players in a row in three matches was (David) Nalbandian in 2007. Of course it (gives) me a lot of confidence,” Alcaraz said.
This feat, however, seems more like a sign of things to come rather than a blip on the men’s tour.
WORLD NUMBER SIX
Ranked 120th a year ago, Alcaraz is now number six in the world, one rung below Nadal ahead of the French Open — the first Grand Slam Nadal won in 2005 when he was the hungry 19-year-old turning heads on the tour.
The comparisons drawn between the two Spaniards were inevitable when Alcaraz started dominating on clay before he went on to tame the hardcourts during the U.S. swing earlier this year.
Nadal may not be ready to pass the torch on yet but he has warmed up to the future of Spanish tennis and put an arm around Alcaraz, not just to encourage him but also to protect him from the media frenzy.
“If he’s able to win 25 Grand Slams, it’s going to be amazing for him and for our country, and I’ll be happy for him. But let him enjoy his personal career,” Nadal warned. “Don’t put extra pressure on him.”
The hegemony of the ageing ‘Big Three’ in men’s tennis has lasted longer than expected with up-and-coming contenders proving to be nothing more than one-off winners but there is genuine belief that Alcaraz can change that.
“He definitely is special… (At) Roland Garros, he’s definitely one of the main favourites, no doubt, even though he has never reached the second week of a Grand Slam,” said Djokovic when the world number one was beaten in Madrid.
Grand Slam champions Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem looked rusty when they made their returns from injury while Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas have been unable to convert titles into Grand Slam success, often wilting under the burden of expectations.
But Alcaraz is eager to prove his mettle.
“People are going to think that I’m going to be one of the favourites to win Roland Garros but I always said that I have a different view,” Alcaraz said after his dream run in Madrid.
“I don’t have it as tension, I have it as a motivation.”