It felt fitting that Carlos Alcaraz’s win over Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Open, which seemed like a seminal moment in the handover of power, was watched by King Felipe VI of Spain.
While Nadal is not prepared to abdicate his ‘King of Clay’ throne, Alcaraz’s first win over one of his childhood idols – and subsequent lifting of the Madrid title – was the strongest signal yet that the 19-year-old Spaniard is ready to rule. the men’s game.
Alcaraz, long touted as a future Grand Slam champion after being identified as a potential superstar at age 11, has dominated the ATP Tour in recent weeks.
The next step is to transfer this form to a Grand Slam and best-of-five-set format, with the first opportunity at the French Open, which starts on Sunday.
If Alcaraz were to win at Roland Garros, where the 35-year-old Nadal has been nearly unbeatable for the past two decades, then the jump from tennis sensation to mainstream recognition would be complete.
Other players and pundits have advised him to do just that, while bookmakers have made him one of the favorites alongside 13-time winner Nadal, who is trying to manage a foot injury, and defending champion Novak. Djokovic.
So who is this young man who was once branded as ‘a piece of spaghetti’ and who has the tennis world salivating? And will he deliver him?
‘The best player in the world right now’
Winning this month’s Madrid Open, the most prestigious tournament in his homeland, was Alcaraz’s fourth title of 2022. No other man has won as many.
A tally of 28 match wins this year was also unmatched before the Italian Open, which Alcaraz skipped to preserve himself for Roland Garros.
As of May 2021, he was ranked 120th in the world. A year later, he is sixth.
“People are going to think I’m one of the favorites to win Roland Garros,” Alcaraz said after beating defending champion Alexander Zverev to win the Madrid title.
“I don’t have it as tension, I have it as motivation.”
Djokovic believes there is “no doubt” Alcaraz can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 5, while Zverev called the teenager “the best player in the world right now”.
After losing to Alcaraz in Madrid, Nadal admitted that it was the beginning of the “surrender”.
“Whether it’s today or not, we’ll see in the next few months,” the 21-time Grand Slam champion added.
Alcaraz’s best performance at a Grand Slam so far has been reaching the US Open quarterfinals last year and many are expecting the sixth seed to match that run, if not better, at Roland Garros.
Clay is the surface he grew up playing on in Spain and four of his five ATP titles have come on red clay.
Winning a major title this year is Alcaraz’s next goal, and to help him achieve it, he can count on the guidance of a man who has been there and done it: coach Juan Carlos Ferrero.
“Having lived through all these situations makes me more aware of how he feels and how to handle those situations,” the Spaniard, a former world number one and 2003 French Open champion, told BBC Sport.
“Winning a Grand Slam is very difficult. It’s competing against the best at their best in fairly long matches.
“We need to keep working, stay focused on our work and let all the noise going on around us not affect it.
“As I was saying: you still haven’t matched anyone else’s achievements.”
How a ‘piece of spaghetti’ has become the newest star
Alcaraz’s strong rise in an impressive year is due to his discipline and commitment on and off the pitch.
Special emphasis has been placed on improving shot selection and building a body that can cope with the physical demands placed on the best players in the world.
“We worked a lot on his fitness because before, as I joke sometimes, he was like spaghetti,” Ferrero said.
“We also work on all shots and put special emphasis on his shot selection. He is very talented and needs to sort out all the options he has when it comes to hitting.
“It’s also been important to work on being tidy off the pitch. To be one of the best, you have to make this effort as well.”
In Madrid, Alcaraz outclassed three of the players ranked in the top four in the world. No player had achieved that in a Masters 1000 event since Argentina’s David Nalbandian in 2007.
Nadal was the first to fall in the quarterfinals before 20-time Grand Slam winner Djokovic and Olympic champion Zverev were also eliminated.
Alcaraz’s performance in a one-sided win against Germany’s Zverev was described by 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova as “an absolute thrashing”.
“He has no weaknesses. I don’t know what I would do if I was playing with him,” said Navratilova, who was an on-court analyst in Madrid for Amazon Prime.
Zverev seemed stunned by the manner of his destruction, while Greek world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas said he had been “very inspired” by Alcaraz’s success.
As leading members of the ‘Next Gen’ group, the wave of 20-somethings looking to fill the void soon to be left by Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer, Zverev and Tsitsipas realize that the young Alcaraz is now another major hurdle in their quest for titles. of Grand Slam.
“I really think he’s outdone them. [the Next Gen players]now he’s ahead of them,” said Annabel Croft, the former British number one who is also an Amazon Prime analyst.
“They’re going to be chasing him and trying to find ways to level him up. He’s sending shockwaves through the locker room.”
A ‘special talent’ with big aspirations
While he has high aspirations, there is nothing arrogant about Alcaraz.
Born and raised in El Palmar, a town just outside Murcia in southern Spain, he typifies the characteristics of the people of a traditionally agricultural region that relies heavily on the export of fruit and vegetables.
Hardworking and determined, but enjoying the moments that life has in store for her.
He was recently a guest on El Hormiguero, a popular talk show on Spanish television, and celebrated with the Real Madrid footballers on the Bernabéu pitch after they claimed another La Liga title.
That does not distract you from daily work. Since Alcaraz was 15 years old, he has worked hard with Ferrero at his academy, about an hour’s drive from Alcaraz’s home.
Ferrero was persuaded by Alcaraz’s agent, Albert Molina, who saw the 11-year-old and convinced the international sports agency IMG to manage him a year later, to commit to what he saw as a long-term project that can generate great rewards for all.
“He came to play some tournaments that we used to organize in the academy,” Ferrero said.
“At that time I already had a great level and something different. I was surprisingly weak physically and had no order playing.
“But his forehand was already something special, I could really see a big difference from the others. He already showed quite special talents.”
The constant comparisons between Alcaraz and Nadal are already wearing thin for some people, with both players begging for the young Spaniard to receive his own recognition.
“I know there will never be another like Rafa in history. I am Carlos,” Alcaraz said last year.
Although his physical stamina is similar, Alcaraz plays closer to the baseline than Nadal, likes to go further and regularly uses the dropshot as a powerful weapon.
But Alcaraz possesses the same important attribute as Nadal in his quest for greatness: an insatiable appetite for self-improvement.
“I think I still have to improve everything. I’ve always said you can improve everything. You never reach a limit,” he said.
“Look at Rafa, Djokovic, [Roger] Federer, everyone improves and they have things to improve. That’s why they’re so good, and that’s why they’re so [of the] time up there, because they don’t stop. They keep working and improving.
“That’s what I want to do. I want to keep progressing. I have really good shots. I’m not saying I don’t, but I know I can make them better and they can be even better.”