Seventeen years ago, the exhilarating Rafael Nadal surged into the final of the Miami Masters 1000 tournament, and the Spaniard nearly took home the title. He moved ahead of Roger Federer by two sets to love and 4-1 in the third set before the Swiss managed to engineer a magnificent comeback to prevail in five sets and seal the crown. Nadal was still 18 then but, despite his anguishing setback against Federer, it was apparent that the dynamic southpaw was headed inexorably toward the forefront of the sport. Nadal won no fewer than eleven tournaments across that sterling season including his first major at Roland Garros. He finished the year at No. 2 in the world. This inexhaustible competitor has never looked back, claiming a record 21 majors altogether, reaffirming his greatness time and again when it has counted the most.
The feeling grows that another 18-year-old Spaniard with a strikingly similar penchant for producing his best when the stakes are highest has demonstrably shown that he, too, belongs among the elite. Carlos Alcaraz established himself as the youngest ever to win the Miami Open when he defeated the Norwegian Casper Ruud 7-5, 6-4 in the final. Alcaraz, the No. 14 seed, is the third youngest ever to collect a Masters 1000 crown. Michael Chang was the youngest when he came through to win Toronto in 1990 at 18, and Nadal was the second youngest when he took the Monte Carlo title at 18 in 2005. It is no accident that Alcaraz has stamped his authority at such a young age, and only a matter of time before he captures one of the four major events. The feeling grows that Alcaraz will succeed at a Grand Slam tournament later this season, perhaps in late summer in New York at the U.S. Open.
No one in the world of men’s tennis has played at this level of the game since Nadal in 2005. To be sure, Nadal exploded in the months after Miami that season and permanently altered the tennis landscape. The way I look at it, Alcaraz is poised to alter his profession similarly across the rest of 2022 and through the remainder of his career. Can he win eleven tournaments this year the way Nadal did in 2005? I doubt that. But he has secured two titles already this season, and undoubtedly will claim at least four or five more the rest of the way. In my view, he will inevitably end 2022 among the top five in the world. In a best case scenario, he might even make a bid for the year-end No 1 spot.
Nadal in 2005 was already a supreme match player, almost always able to raise his level and display his best tennis in the tight corners of the biggest contests, seldom performing like anything less than a wily veteran despite his inexperience. Alcaraz’s exuberance, optimism and intensity is highly reminiscent of Nadal, but his game is decidedly more advanced and diversified than Rafa’s was at the same age.
As the late Ted Tinling—a Hall of Famer and erudite tennis observer—once said, “Comparisons are odious.” Tinling had a point because all tennis champions develop differently and confront challenges that are unique to their own circumstances. Nadal was even more mature at 18 and his shot selection was perhaps more sophisticated and precise, but Alcaraz is surely a more complete player as a teenager. He has essentially the entire package already with his explosive ground game off both wings, his remarkable variety on serve, and his exquisite touch and timely use of the drop shot. His court coverage is almost unparalleled and enables him to steadfastly defend. He forces opponents to press because they are ever conscious of his alacrity around the court. And his willingness to come forward not only off mid-court balls, but also to serve-and-volley selectively, is remarkable. He employs that latter tactic most impressively in the ad court with the kick serve wide to the backhand opening up the court for routine first volleys, or sometimes provoking errant returns.
Against the No. 6 seed Ruud, Alcaraz replicated a pattern he had put into practice all week long in Miami, battling back fiercely, figuring out the right recipe to get the job done, refusing to panic when he was behind. Ruud owns one of the game’s heaviest and finest forehands, and his first serve is underrated. The 23-year-old Norwegian came out of the blocks purposefully and confidently in the final, taking 12 of 18 points in building a 3-0 lead, reaching 4-1 after saving a break point in the fifth game. Alcaraz had been apprehensive in the early stages, dropping his serve in the second game with four unforced errors off the forehand.
But there are few players as perspicacious as Alcaraz in today’s world of tennis, and he made the necessary adjustments, imposing himself much more off the forehand. With Ruud serving at 4-2, the Norwegian missed five of six first serves and Alcaraz refused to allow his adversary to get away with it. He broke back and then surged to 4-4. After Ruud took the ninth game, Alcaraz was stellar under pressure. Serving at 4-5, 30-30, two points from conceding the set, he came forward and coaxed a backhand pass narrowly long from Ruud, and then released an ace at 124 MPH down the T.
Back to 5-5 was an unwavering Alacaraz. He broke once more for 6-5, and soared to 40-15 in the twelfth game before losing three points in a row. Ruud was at break point, but Alcaraz again met a propitious moment forthrightly. He went to the serve-and-volley tactic and Ruud missed the return. After a forehand volley winner gave him a third set point, Alcaraz played serve-volley again, this time putting away an overhead off a hanging backhand return. Set to Alcaraz, 7-5.
He then opened up a commanding 3-0 second set lead with two service breaks in hand. Ruud closed the gap to 3-2 but Alcaraz was unrelenting. He held three more times at the cost of only two points to close out the account 7-5, 6-4. Serving for the match Alcaraz, was letter perfect, holding at love, finishing it off impeccably and unhesitatingly.
The way he recouped in the final was indicative of the entire week for the beguiling Spaniard. His first two matches were relatively straightforward. Alcaraz opened with a 6-3, 6-2 win over the Hungarian Marton Fucsovics. Next he accounted for the 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic 6-4, 6-4.
But then the hard work commenced for the teenager. One of the most absorbing matches of 2021 was Alcaraz’s five set triumph over Stefanos Tsitsipas at the U.S. Open. That was when he announced his authenticity as a top flight player.
They had not met since, but in Miami Tsitsipas was timing the ball sweetly and serving skillfully on his way to a 5-2 first set lead in the round of 16. But Alcaraz swept seven games in a row and 30 of 38 points in that stretch, eventually recording a 7-5, 6-3 victory. Alcaraz had the Greek stylist thoroughly befuddled with his shotmaking wizardry.
Facing the strikingly improved Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic in the quarterfinals, Alcaraz was pushed to the hilt by the world No. 48. Kecmanovic was, as they say in the trade, “rock solid.” He was going toe to toe with the Spaniard from the backcourt and there was little to choose between them. In the third set of this spirited clash, Alcaraz found himself in a precarious position at 4-5, 15-30. His response was extraordinary. Alcaraz drove a flat backhand down the line for a winner, made an astounding forehand half-volley drop shot winner, and then came in behind his serve to implement a drop volley winner.
Alcaraz’s brave stand there brought him back to 5-5 in the final set, but he was on the brink of defeat again in the tie-break, trailing 5-3. Yet the Spaniard produced another stunning forehand half-volley winner, a penetrating backhand down the line which coaxed an error from Kecmanovic, a service winner to the forehand and a spectacular backhand pass up the line. Those four consecutive points lifted Alcaraz to a hard fought 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5) win. Five times he had been within two points of defeat, but Alcaraz was the better man when it counted.
Now facing the defending champion Hubert Hurkacz in the penultimate round, Alcaraz was in a bind again. He trailed 5-3 in the first set tie-break against the 6’5” Polish player, but took four points in a row to turn that critical set around. He won another tie-break in the second set more easily, fashioning a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (2) triumph in a match with no service breaks to take his place in the final. And then, of course, he struck back boldly from that 1-4 deficit in the final, winning nine of the next ten games on his way to a career defining victory.
The men’s game is clearly being reshaped by the captivating Alcaraz, now stationed at No. 11 in the ATP Rankings. Timing is everything in life. Keep in mind that Daniil Medvedev lost to Hurkacz in the quarterfinals of Miami and then announced he is having a hernia operation which will keep him out of the game for a month or two. After rising briefly to No. 1 in the world, he has been sidetracked. Moreover, losing the Australian Open final to Nadal after leading by two sets to love and 3-2, 0-40 in the third was a devastatingly potent blow to the Russian which surely set him back psychologically.
Sascha Zverev was magnificent across the second half of 2021 and won the Nitto ATP Finals at the end of the season. But he has struggled mightily this season and was ill when he lost to Ruud in a three set quarterfinal at Miami. He is not heading into the clay court season with much self conviction.
Nadal, of course, was blazing through 2022, winning his first three tournaments of the season and reaching the final at Indian Wells. A fractured rib slowed him down and interfered with his clay court preparation. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has played only one tournament this year. He plans on competing in Monte Carlo and Serbia prior to the French Open but the world No. 1 is in dire need of match play.
And so the stage is set for Alcaraz to make his presence known prodigiously in the weeks and months ahead. He fought Nadal down to the wire before losing on a brutally windy day in the semifinals at Indian Wells, but did not look unduly intimidated by his illustrious countryman.
It must be said that Alcaraz will now look at himself in a new light, knowing he is a target. Many players will be intimidated by his sureness overall and his uncanny play under pressure in particular. They will be beaten in many ways before they even step on the court with Alcaraz. But others will look at his exalted status and see an opportunity, competing against him as if they have nothing to lose. It will be crucial for the Spaniard to maintain his admirable reverence for all of the players he confronts, not just the bigger names with the larger reputations.
Somehow, I believe he will handle his changing competitive environment with clarity and maturity. He reminds me temperamentally of Nadal. Alcaraz will not allow himself to get carried away with success. He will relish the chance to keep moving forward, to navigate his way successfully through new territory, to prove to himself that he has the talent and the temperament to become one of the great players of his era and perhaps one of the best of all time.
The hope here is that we will witness some stirring battles between Alcaraz and Nadal as well as some spectacular skirmishes between Alcaraz and Djokovic. The Serbian has never played against the Spaniard. Over the next few years, those matches could be the kind that families discuss animatedly over dinner tables, that fans relish, that all of us celebrate. But in the long run, Alcaraz will be testing his mettle against players we hardly know about at the moment. With his versatile game and dazzling talent, his immense drive and determination, and his unmistakable belief in himself, Carlos Alcaraz will be inspiring audiences all over the world for the next 15 years.
Forgive me for speculating, but when all is said and done, I believe Alcaraz will secure at least 12 to 15 majors across his career, and perhaps a few more. This extraordinary individual is only just beginning to explore his full potential.
COMMENT: Is A Happy Carlos Alcaraz Too Good To Be True?
Carlos Alcaraz has put fun back into professional tennis.
Even the stoic Novak Djokovic has been taken by the fun times. Instead of frowning when Alcaraz comes up with one of his amazing winners, Novak releases a broad smile that turns his bearded face into a fan-winning appeal.
Who would have thought that Novak would become such a fan favorite in his old age as he attracts even Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal fans, and maybe some Alcaraz lovers. That last one may be difficult to believe, considering the almost cult-like following of Alcaraz.
OPPONENTS EVEN JOIN CARLOS’ FUN
It’s the boyish smile that Carlos uses to so easily lure tennis fans into his fan base. Opponents even join the fun when Alcaraz puts on another amazing stunt on the court, or sometimes while sliding to hit a winner off what looked like a sure winner by his opponents.
Even British star Daniel Evans couldn’t ignore the exuberance of Alcaraz in their third-round match at the U.S. Open. Alcaraz comes up with another one of his amazing shots to win a point, and Evans breaks into an ear-to-ear smile. Everyone is happy.
Yes, Carlos Alcaraz is almost too good to be true.
ALCARAZ FILLS THE GAP LEFT BY FEDERER AND NADAL
Yes, the amazing 20-year-old Spaniard gives tennis the bump it needs in the new generation of players after the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic heydays. Of course, Djokovic is still trying to add to his record-setting number of Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic is still very dangerous. It could be a spectacular final if Novak and Alcaraz could work their way into another Grand Slam final as they did at Wimbledon.
Of course, even after taking much of the fire out of Alexander Zverev in straight sets in the quarterfinals, Alcaraz isn’t home free yet. Not with former champion Daniil Medvedev standing in his path in Friday’s semifinals before a possible showdown with Djokovic.
WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN’S SIDE OF THINGS?
It’s anyone’s guess which semifinalist will walk off with the women’s crown on Saturday.
The only Grand Slam champion left, Australian Open champ and new world’s No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka, is in the bottom half of the draw, and must take on red-hot Madison Keys in Thursday’s semifinals.
Wimbledon titlist Marketa Vondrousova didn’t provide much of a test for 2017 U.S. Open finalist Keys in a 6-4, 6-1 loss in the quarterfinals. As good as Keys has been lately, Sabalenka will be difficult to handle.
That leaves young Coco Gauff or French runner-up Karolina Muchova as the other possible finalist. Sabalenka appears to be too strong and aggressive, not to mention talented, for the other three semifinalists.
Where’s French champion Iga Swiatek or high-ranked Jessica Pegula? Of course, both were wiped out in the round of 16, Pegula by Keys and Swiatek by unpredictable Jelena Ostapenko.
That leaves the gate wide open for Sabalenka’s fourth straight Grand Slam semifinal.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Lesson Failed: Never Take A Legend For Granted
Carlos Alcaraz should have learned at least one important lesson from his marathon loss to Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati final.
Never take anything for granted against a legend such as Djokovic.
Alcaraz paid a big price for ignoring that lesson in Sunday afternoon’s scorching heat on a blistering hard court.
NOVAK APPEARED TO BE HEADED FOR DEFEAT
Djokovic appeared to be a beaten man when Alcaraz served with a 4-3 lead in the second set. He was virtually wiped out, or so it appeared.
But the match really was just beginning. Alcaraz won the first point of that eighth game of the set, and everything appeared to be in order for the young Spaniard.
Boy, did things change quickly as Alcaraz carelessly committed four consecutive unforced errors. Suddenly, it was a new game with Novak looking alive and well. Four games later, they were in a tiebreaker and Alcaraz held his only match point of the day.
Djokovic was on fire then and on his way to a 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) victory.
LOSS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD
Of course, this one really didn’t mean that much to either Djokovic or Alcaraz. They are after bigger goals.
The big one comes up in New York in almost three weeks, if both players can make it to the final of the U.S. Open.
Alcaraz can only get better. After all, he’s only 20 years old. He made a remarkable improvement over his performance in losing to Tommy Paul a week earlier in Toronto.
You wouldn’t think Djokovic can get much better than the game he played in the Cincinnati final. Yes, it should be steaming hot in Arthur Ashe Stadium, too.
FIVE SETS A TELLING STORY
This time it will be five sets, and there is no telling who will survive the heat best, if Alcaraz gets another shot at Djokovic. For both players to make it through two weeks in New York to the Sunday final would be a major achievement for Djokovic and defending champion Alcaraz.
Either way, it probably is just a matter of time before Djokovic gives up the chase for more Grand Slam titles. It is worth it in the end of other majors for Djokovic only if he can prevail through the final shot.
But anything short of other major titles wouldn’t be worth what Djokovic went through Sunday in Cincinnati for 229 minutes. Of course, Alcaraz went through similar circumstances at the French Open.
But he’s 16 years younger than Djokovic.
All of the great ones eventually have to surrender to time.
COCO IS A STAR IN THE MAKING
Coco Gauff likely will become one of the great ones before she finishes. A Grand Slam title in New York would set her on her way to greatness.
The 19-year-old, much like Alcaraz, is loaded with weapons. First, she is a great athlete.
That was obvious to me as early as May 2019 when I spotted Gauff resting on a bench at courtside after a long workout at LTP Tennis in Charleston. She already had qualified for the $100K ITF tournament there.
I interviewed Coco for just a few minutes before she was called back to the court. A month later she was in the round of 16 at the French Open.
JUST A MATTER OF TIME FOR GAUFF
Just 15 years old, it was just a matter of time before Gauff would become a superstar.
She isn’t quite there yet, but after winning titles in Washington as well as her first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, Gauff is getting close. She still has two more chances to win a Grand Slam title as a teenager, and the next step could be New York. She already has the experience of a runner-up finish at last year’s French Open.
Gauff really didn’t have much trouble upending Karolina Muchova, 6-3, 6-4, at Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open on Sunday.
But again, the draw for the U.S. Open will be filled with players capable of winning a Grand Slam title, even including the likes of Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, ranked just ninth in the world. As a left-hander, she already has the edge over most of the players in the field.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
WIMBLEDON: An immense Alcaraz, but the changing of the guard is yet to come…
Alcaraz’s merits compared with Djokovic’s demerits. Just a bad day among many so-so days for the Serbian, nonetheless No. 2 of the ATP ranking? Or is it the start of an inexorable decline? Farewell to the Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors?
NOTE: This article was written in Italian and has been Translated by Carla Montaruli
Carlitos Alcaraz triumphed, cheers for Carlitos Alcaraz. The feat he accomplished at only 20 years of age and in his fourth tournament on grass is remarkable, remarkable indeed. He is the third youngest champion ever after 17-year-old Becker and 20-year-old Borg, as well as the third Spaniard after Santana and Nadal to win the trophy. Being able to beat a player in the fifth set after 4 hours and 43 minutes who is the king of marathons, a seven-time champion and had won 45 straight matches over the last 10 years on Centre Court, can only be considered a great exploit.
Credit where credit is due. Alcaraz played beautiful tennis, complete in all aspects, bold forehands and backhands, powerful and hit on the rise, drop-shots, acrobatic and diving volleys, hanging smashes, aces and winning serves. All this with great mental solidity displayed throughout the entire match: after losing the first set badly, enduring the tension of a second set tiebreak which had not started well for him, then dominating the third set and finally closing the encounter as a consummate veteran in the fifth with a last service game played brilliantly after tenaciously defending very well the break he had secured in the third game of the final set.
A 20-year-old young man could not be asked for more. A well-deserved applause and congratulations also for defending that first place in the world rankings that he will hold for the twenty-ninth week, hoping to keep it as long as possible.
Staying at the top for 389 weeks like the extraordinary champion he beat on Sunday would mean dominating the world stage for over seven years. Over seven years! And…as I write this I wonder if we have paid enough attention to such a feat in all that time!
Yes, because you write 310 weeks, Federer’s weeks as world No.1, then you write 389, that is Djokovic’s weeks spent in the same spot: there and then they seem like just numbers…but only when you divide them by 52, the weeks in a year, do you realize the immensity of these extended dominances within a sport whose growing competitiveness and many booming young guns are emphasized almost every day.
Crazy in the case of both Federer and Djokovic with the ATP scepter in their hands, because each of them – as the fourth part of the Fab Four – had to confront at least with the other three. All four have been world number one. Still, for 699 weeks, almost 13 years and a half, Roger and Nole were number one, Nadal was king for 209 weeks and Murray for 41. Add them up and that’s another five years—eighteen years of reign for four kings. Written so many times off the top of my head…but upon reflection this is impressive stuff. It never remotely happened before.
So here it is… the idea that Carlitos Alcaraz could one day – but we are talking about seven years! – reach Djokovic’s 389-week reign today may seem unreal, absolutely far-fetched.
But…are there perhaps three more champions on the horizon who can recreate a quartet of phenomena like the Fab Four? I don’t see them at all. Will Alcaraz be alone in the driver’s seat for the next few years?
In seven years, 10 or 18 – 18 years was the reign of the Fab Four — phenoms could sprout up almost like mushrooms! Speculating on what will happen in such a long and far away period is a mindless divertissement and I don’t know why it dawned on me…. Except perhaps Holger Rune today – though greatly downgraded by the last duel here at Wimbledon – there doesn’t seem to be a rival of Alcaraz’s caliber right now. Our compatriots may see our Sinner two steps below Alcaraz and one step below Rune, but neither do they see other “prospects” ahead of him. Djokovic called Sinner one of the leaders of the new generation. His fifth place in the Race, along with eighth in ATP ranking certify such status.
But then for a year or two, or maybe even three, if Rune and Sinner don’t make giant strides, or if a new rising star doesn’t emerge, Carlitos Alcaraz could easily add a hundred or more weeks to the 29 he has already earned as No. 1.
Or am I venturing into a wild prediction?
Just not to present you with a single scenario I want to say, however, that the most obvious commonplace one could come up with today, after this final that Djokovic shall not cease to regret for at least four reasons – three missed backhands in the tiebreak and a clumsy drive volley which squandered a hard-earned break point for a 2-0 lead in the decider – is that we have witnessed the changing of the guard.
It will make so many headlines, sure. I may have uttered it too, in one of the many videos I did for Ubi Instagram, for Ubitennis, and the IntesaSanPaolo website. But in my opinion, it’s not true yet.
Djokovic is not ready to retire. He is not going to quit, even if the dream of achieving a Grand Slam has vanished, maybe forever. Farewell to Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors? I think so. He is still world No. 2, isn’t he?
I had written throughout the tournament – you may check – that I didn’t think I had seen the best Djokovic. He had not been at his best against Hurkacz or even Rublev. And, as much as many readers disagreed, neither had he dominated Sinner as he had last year in the last three sets when he had been truly unplayable. Demerit to him and credit to Sinner, as often happens simultaneously.
I wrote that Hurkacz had thrown the first set out of the window and when leading 5-4 in the tiebreak of the second with two serves at disposal to put it away he had not been faultless but had shown a lack of personality. I also wrote that Rublev had been unlucky in the fourth set on the occasion of some break points he had failed to convert.
We did not see the best Djokovic, in my opinion, even in the final against Alcaraz. Otherwise, he would have been two sets up.
Oh yes, come on: the three backhand errors he made in the first tiebreak he lost after 15 won were not errors from Djokovic, the champion who has always played the crucial pointsbetter than anyone else, certainly better than Federer and Murray, perhaps equal to Nadal.. In particular, match points aside – what about that, dear Roger? – those tiebreaks that are said to be worth double.
Those three backhands, a drop shot at 3-2 when he was a minibreak ahead, the one at 6-5 and setpoint after he had deftly returned Carlitos’ serve, the one at 6-6 were errors worthy of a Hurkacz, a Norrie or a Shapovalov, not a Djokovic!
I recall – just quoting from memory because I haven’t time to engage in dutiful and thorough research – that Nole’s record in best-of-five matches after winning the first set is monstrous. Imagine after winning the first two sets.
Here, a Nole in ordinary form, even against that very inspired Alcaraz, would have started the third set with a two-set lead.
I know that with ifs and buts, you don’t go anywhere. But I’m pretty sure – and I think Nole is too – that if the two sets lead never came into being, it was more because of Nole’s demerit than Carlitos’ merit.
But is this a random demerit, due to a bad day and a series of bad days as it appeared to me throughout the tournament, or is it a sign of the slow inexorable decline of the Serbian who is beginning to come to terms with his age? That drive volley with which he dissipated the all-important break point and the chance to rise 2-0 in the fifth set was another topical moment. Yet, it was not Novak to succeed in a decisive breakthrough, but Carlos three minutes later.
The fury with which, at the changeover, Nole smashed his racket on the net post is revealing. Nole had missed the train to victory and, experienced as he is, he understood it.
I would say that this casual contingent demerit or signal of inexorable decline is the discriminating point of our debate.
Bravo, bravo to Alcaraz for taking advantage of it with precocious maturity, but did Djokovic stumble over a mediocre day by chance, because it can happen to everyone, even to younger tennis players, or because even he – an extraordinary phenomenon – is on that rickety path where age starts taking its toll?
If the most plausible answer we believe in is the first one – and that is the one I believe in – we cannot yet speak of a changing of the guard.
Djokovic can safely return to the throne of tennis, perhaps win the US Open and/or the next ATP Finals in Turin as well as an 11th Australian Open. Push the undoubtedly great Alcaraz back to second place.
If, on the other hand, the right answer is the second, this Wimbledon definitely enshrines the changing of the guard. But, even in this scenario, only the changing of the guard at the top and the handover between Djokovic and Alcaraz. Not a generational changing of the guard though, at least for now and the very near future, because even a subdued and slightly tarnished Djokovic is stronger than Rune, Sinner, and Tsitsipas on almost any surface. At worst he would be the second-best tennis player in the world. The others, Sinner included, would do anything to stand where he stands.
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