An apt indication of just how much discussion the rise of Carlos Alcaraz has generated came on Monday in Rafael Nadal’s pre-tournament press conference at the Italian Open.
Wary of how often Nadal has already had to discuss his young compatriot in recent months, a journalist introduced their question by expressing their hope that Nadal would not be annoyed by yet more Alcaraz talk to come.
“I will never be annoyed about answering questions about a colleague of mine,” Nadal responded.
Alcaraz will not be seen in Rome this year. Shortly after his breathless triumph against Alexander Zverev in the final of the Madrid Open on Sunday, he announced he would be withdrawing from the tournament in order to recuperate before the French Open begins.
Still, his rise has been the defining story of the past two months and his success will continue to loom over the tour until the French Open begins.
"He definitely is special," said Novak Djokovic, who lost against Alcaraz in the semi-final in Madrid.
“I mean, already he’s breaking a lot of records as a teenager, winning two Masters events this year, a couple of 500s. So far he’s the best player in the world, no question, this year with the results that he’s been doing.”
So far this year, Alcaraz has compiled an absurd 28-3 (90%) record, he has won four titles in as many months including two Masters 1000 victories in Miami and Madrid and two ATP 500 events. He has been clinical against the very best, winning eight of his past nine matches against top-10 players.
While he was already far above the curve when he was ranked 120th in May 2021, now he is sixth in the ATP rankings and second in the ATP race. The respect he has already garnered was further shown by Nadal ‘s lack of surprise at Alcaraz’s success.
“No reaction,” said Nadal, vanquished by Alcaraz in the round before Djokovic last week. “Nothing new in my opinion, no? He already won in Miami, won in Barcelona. Honestly is not a big surprise. Happy for him. Everybody knows the amount of confidence he has right now, the level that he can reach.”
The statistics, as spectacular as they are, only tell some of Alcaraz’s story this year. He has arrived on the tour with a game that is already almost complete and a comprehensive toolbox of shots, with each new tournament seemingly bringing out a little more of his skill and dynamism.
In his first full season as a top-100 player, Alcaraz is already, surely, the fastest player on the tour and his athleticism has allowed him to win so many points from audacious defensive positions.
He pairs his defence with brutal, heavy shotmaking off both wings. He is already one of the best returners in the world and his confidence at the net is striking. Despite all of that, his defining shot has been that delicate forehand drop shot, which he has audaciously pulled out on big points throughout this year, and which contrasts so effectively with his nuclear driven forehand.
"I think it's incredible what he's doing right now," said Emma Raducanu. "Being so young and being so consistent is really impressive. I think the way that he moves is really gracious and elegant. If you watch him, it just looks like he's flying through the air. He's super aggressive, can just take the racquet out of someone's hands."
The Madrid Open final itself showed just how things have shifted since the first major title of the year. Standing before Alcaraz was Zverev, the player who for so long was hyped as the leading talent of the younger generation from as young as 16 years old. Zverev has certainly enjoyed a good career, but on Sunday as he was dismantled and the gulf between their levels was stark.
While Zverev had reason to be frustrated by Madrid’s poor scheduling, his second serve and forehand crumbling in important moments has been a continuous theme in his career. Other well-hyped players of his generation have been limited by poor returning, insufficient variety or a glaring, weaker groundstroke.
By comparison, Alcaraz’s game is so well fortified, with his service precision his only real technical weak point. With such a strong foundation, he has effortlessly marked himself as a Grand Slam threat at just 19.
Now, as he schedules like a top player already, he will try to play like one when it matters most across best of five set matches in the coming French Open. However, as he rests, Nadal and Djokovic will be working in Rome to gain sufficient matchplay and progress enough to meet him at the top of his level in Paris.
On Monday in Rome, Stan Wawrinka won his first match in more than a year after returning from two foot surgeries earlier in the clay season. The 37-year-old, the only player other than Nadal or Djokovic to win the title at Roland Garros in the past 12 years, pulled off an excellent 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory against the No 17 Reilly Opelka.
Dan Evans was defeated 7-6(2), 6-2 in the first round by Nikoloz Basilashvili. – Guardian