It felt fitting that Carlos Alcaraz’s win over Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Open – which seemed like a landmark moment in the passing of power – was watched by Spain’s King Felipe VI.
While Nadal is unwilling to resign from his throne as ‘King of Clay’, Alcaraz’s first win over one of his childhood idols – and the subsequent lifting of the title in Madrid – was the strongest sign that the 19-year-old Spaniard was ready. is to rule the man’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 turn this form into a Grand Slam and best-of-five sets, with the first chance at the French Open, which kicks off Sunday.
If Alcaraz were to win at Roland Garros – where 35-year-old Nadal has been almost unbeatable for the past two decades – the jump from tennis sensation to mainstream recognition would be complete.
Fellow players and pundits have tipped him to do just that, while bookmakers have made him one of the favorites alongside 13-time winner Nadal – who is trying to fix a foot injury – and defending champion Novak Djokovic.
So who is this youngster once called “a piece of spaghetti” who has made the tennis world salivate? And will he deliver?
‘Best player in the world right now’
Winning this month’s Madrid Open – the most prestigious tournament in his home country – was Alcaraz’s fourth title in 2022. No other man has won as many.
A total of 28 wins this year was also unmatched in the Italian Open, which Alcaraz skipped to save himself for Roland Garros.
In May 2021, he was ranked 120th in the world. A year later he is sixth.
“People will 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” that Alcaraz can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 5, while Zverev labeled the teenager the “best player in the world right now”.
After losing to Alcaraz in Madrid, Nadal admitted that this was the beginning of the “handover”.
“Whether it’s today or not, we’ll see in the coming months,” added the 21-time Grand Slam champion.
Alcaraz’s best Grand Slam performance to date was reaching the quarter-finals of the US Open last year and many expect the sixth seed to match, if not better, that series at Roland Garros.
Clay is the surface he grew up on playing in Spain and four of his five ATP titles have landed on red soil.
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.
“The fact that I’ve been through all these situations makes me realize more about how he feels and how I should deal with those situations,” the former Spanish number one in the world and 2003 French Open champion told BBC Sport.
“Winning a Grand Slam is very difficult. It is competing against the best at their peak in fairly long matches.
“We have to keep working, focus on our work and not let him be influenced by all the noise that is going on around him.
“As I always told him, he has never equaled the achievements of anyone.”
How a ‘Piece of Spaghetti’ Became the Latest Star
Alcaraz’s surge in an astonishing year is due to his discipline and dedication on and off the field.
Particular attention has been paid to improving shot selection and building a body that can withstand the physical demands placed on the world’s best players.
“We worked a lot on his fitness because back in the day, as I sometimes joked, he was like a piece of spaghetti,” Ferrero said.
“We also work on all shots and put special emphasis on his shot selection. He has a lot of talent and needs to order all the options he has while hitting.
“Being orderly out of court was also important to work on. To be one of the best, you also have to make this effort.”
In Madrid, Alcaraz defeated three of the top four players in the world. No player had achieved that in a Masters 1000 event since Argentina’s David Nalbandian in 2007.
Nadal fell first in the quarterfinals before also sending off 20-time big winner Djokovic and Olympic champion Zverev.
Alcaraz’s performance in a one-sided win against Germany’s Zverev was described by 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova as “an outright beating”.
“He has no weaknesses. I don’t know what I would do if I played against him,” said Navratilova, who was an analyst in Madrid for Amazon Prime.
Zverev looked stunned by the way he was destroyed, while Greek number four in the world Stefanos Tsitsipas said he was “much inspired” by Alcaraz’s success.
As leading members of the ‘Next Gen’ group – the wave of early 20s looking to fill the void soon to be left by Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer – Zverev and Tsitsipas fully realize that the younger Alcaraz is now a different major obstacle in their quest for Grand Slam titles.
“I really think he skipped them” [the Next Gen players]”He’s ahead of them now,” said Annabel Croft, the former UK number one who is also an Amazon Prime analyst.
“They’re going to chase him and try to figure out ways to raise their level. He sends shockwaves through the locker room.”
A ‘special talent’ with lofty ambitions
Although he has high ambitions, there is nothing arrogant about Alcaraz.
Born and raised in El Palmar, a town outside Murcia in southern Spain, he typifies the characteristics of the people of a traditionally agricultural region that is heavily dependent on the export of fruit and vegetables.
Hardworking and determined, but enjoying the moments that life has to offer.
Recently invited to El Hormiguero – a popular chat show on Spanish television – he celebrated with Real Madrid footballers on the Bernabeu pitch after taking another La Liga title.
That does not distract him from the daily work. Since Alcaraz was 15, Ferrero has worked hard at his academy, about an hour’s drive from Alcaraz’s home.
Ferrero was persuaded by Alcaraz’s agent Albert Molina, who saw the young 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 would benefit all. can yield a rich reward.
“He came to play some tournaments that we used to host at the academy,” Ferrero said.
“At that point he already had a great level and something different. He was surprisingly weak physically and had no order at all while playing.
“But his forehand was already something special, I really saw a big difference with others. He already showed some pretty special talents.”
The constant comparisons between Alcaraz and Nadal are already fading for some people, with both players begging to give the younger Spaniard his own acknowledgment.
“I know there will never be a Rafa in history. I am Carlos,” said Alcaraz last year.
While their physical stamina is similar, Alcaraz plays closer to baseline than Nadal, likes to get out more and regularly uses the dropshot as a powerful weapon.
But Alcaraz possesses the same important quality 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, they are all improving and they have things to improve. That’s why they’re so good, and that’s why they’re so many [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 making progress. I have really good pictures. I’m not saying I don’t have them, but I know I can improve them and they can do better.”