Carlos Alcaraz Surging Into The Forefront Of Tennis - UBITENNIS
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Carlos Alcaraz Surging Into The Forefront Of Tennis

Tennis Hall of Famer Steve Flink reflects on the extraordinary rise of the 18-year-old Spaniard.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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The Next Group Of Hopefuls To Replace The ‘Great Trio’ May Be Beaten Out By Youth

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Carlos Alcaraz - Roland Garros 2022 (photo Roberto Dell'Olivo)

What is it with this supposedly great crop of newer and younger players groomed to take the places of the “Great Trio” of  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the top of the men’s game?

 

Only Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have won Grand Slam titles, both at the U.S. Open. And that’s about it. Medvedev just fell to Marin Cilic in the French Open round of 16.

Who?

You remember the 33-year-old hard-hitting Croatian who won the 2014 U.S. Open. Cilic had hardly been heard from since the 2018 Australian Open where he was runner-up . . . until  Monday when he needed just 45 minutes to conquer Medvedev.

THIEM JUST ANOTHER PLAYER THESE DAYS

Thiem? He looked like the real deal in 2020 when he won the U.S. Open. The Austrian is now 28 years old and an injured right wrist in 2021 has pushed Thiem far down the ATP rankings.

Then, there was the next presumed superstar: Stefanos Tsitsipas. The aggressive potential superstar came up empty on Monday against a virtually unknown teenager. Holger Rune was fantastic in his four-set domination of Tsitsipas.

The just-turned 19-year-old Rune appears to have it all: speed, quickness, power and touch. A 40th ranking isn’t too bad for a teen-ager, especially when it will zoom higher as the result of his advancement to a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

ARE MEDVEDEV, THIEM AND TSITSIPAS REALLY THAT GREAT?

Maybe Medvedev, Thiem and Tsitsipas aren’t really as good as they once appeared to be. They are certainly not in the category of all-time greats. They have had their chances to become household words.

Maybe the members of this group weren’t meant to be the superstars to replace Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as fan favorites.

Maybe, it’s the next group of younger players, even teenagers. Yes, it appears that Carlos Alcaraz may outshine the likes of Thiem, Medvedev and Tsitsipas in the next few years.

MAKE WAY FOR CARLOS ALCARAZ?

It just happens the 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz may become one of the eventual replacements for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Carlos Alcaraz is one week younger than Rune.

Alexander Zverev might have been ahead of the others if he hadn’t blown so many chances for stardom the last few years. Still, he is the Olympic champion and probably has more potential than Thiem, Medvedev or Tsitsipas.

A HERD OF PLAYERS WAITING TO MAKE THEIR MARKS

There is a herd of virtually unknown players waiting to make their mark. For instance, take Casper Ruud, 20-year-old Jannik Skinner and Matteo Berrettini. They have the potential to beat anyone.

But Alcaraz and Rune look like the best of the new young guns of tennis.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter who wins the Nadal-Djokovic quarterfinal showdown in Paris. They are two of the greatest players ever. Nothing is going to change that, not in Paris or anywhere else. Their place in history is written in stone, alongside Federer.

WOMEN’S GAME UNPREDICTABLE

The women’s game is even more unpredictable than the men’s game. One reason is because the WTA no longer has superstars the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, and Ashleigh Barty.

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek looked ready to take over the women’s game with her long string of consecutive wins. But in the last two rounds of the French Open, Swiatek has looked like just another good player at times.

That may be due to the fact that the Polish sensation is going for her second French Open title while taking a 31-match winning streak into the quarterfinals. But it happened in the third round against 95th-ranked Danka Kovinic and then again Monday in round of 16 against 74th-ranked Qinwen Zheng.

Swiatek suddenly looked very average, but then bounced back to take both matches in the cool weather once she put on a white jacket in each match. She aroused her game early enough to avoid losing a set against Kovinic, but not against Zheng.

PEGULA MAY TEST SWIATEK

Swiatek now will face newlywed Jessie Pegula in the quarterfinals. Pegula is now playing the best tennis of her career and has rocketed to No. 11 in the world. Like Swiatek, Pegula is a fighter. She won’t go down easily and may be Swiatek’s toughest test remaining in Paris.

The 28-year-old Pegula called Charleston her home while she trained for a couple of years at the then Family Circle Cup complex, which is now the home of the Credit One Charleston Open stop on the WTA Tour. Pegula was married in last October at the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Pegula also is having doubles success in Paris. She teamed with Coco Gauff to reach the third round in doubles, hoping for a victory there to advance to the doubles quarterfinals as well.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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