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Carlos Alcaraz, the tennis future and present, rolled into one


Birthday celebrations usually reflect one’s age. For Carlos Alcaraz, they outline his growth. The Spaniard marked his 16th birthday days after losing the opening qualifying round for the 2019 Barcelona Open. He turned 18 last year with the crowd at the Manolo Santana Stadium singing for him, but Rafael Nadal played party pooper in a 6-1, 6-2 Madrid Open second round loss.

He danced for his 19th inside the same court on Thursday, after defeating Cameron Norrie to book a quarter-finals spot. The next day, he turned up to beat Nadal. The next day, Novak Djokovic.

Give the kid a gift already. If not for rallying to down world No 1 Djokovic 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(5) in a three-hour 35-minute Madrid Open semi-final tussle, then for doing it barely 24 hours after overcoming Nadal 6-2, 1-6, 6-3. If not for being the first player to sweep past the two giants in the same clay-court tournament, then for being the youngest on that list across all surfaces and tournaments. If not for capturing a maiden ATP Masters title this season, then for breaking into the top 10 of the world rankings two weeks ago at 18.

It wasn’t too long ago that Alcaraz—armed with a high quality game and temperament that belies his age—was tipped as the Next Big Thing in men’s tennis. Erase that Next.

His rise has been as accelerated as it is astonishing. Alcaraz hadn’t played an ATP level match until two years ago. In 2019, he was competing in the lower-rung ATP Challenger and ITF tours, ending the year ranked 492nd. Twelve months on, the young talent sailed into the top 150. Then came the big press that catapulted him into the elite.

After a semi-final in the ATP 250 Marbella in April last year, Alcaraz won his first ATP title in Umag in July, lifting him closer to a top-50 spot. The teen though was already busy beating top-10 players. He stunned third-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets in the US Open Round of 32 and No 7 Matteo Berrettini in the Vienna Open quarter-finals. Alcaraz ended the season as world No 32 and champion of the Next Gen ATP Finals. Erase that Next.

This season, Alcaraz has marched on at an even more breathtaking pace. He lifted his first ATP Masters 1000 crown on the hard courts of Miami Open last month to go with titles in Rio and Barcelona, boosting his top-10 win count while adding the world No 1 and 4 to his list in Madrid. He became the youngest man to break into the top 10 last month since Nadal 17 years ago.

The parallels and comparisons with his Spanish idol are natural, given Alcaraz’s early success on the red dirt and his forehand fondness. For his age, though, Alcaraz has a much quicker serve. His power game is lethal from both sides, which Nadal and Djokovic experienced in their defeats. It takes something special to out-hit two of the most effective baseliners in the history of the game on clay. Alcaraz blasted 19 winners in the first set against Nadal and 51 in the match against Djokovic, who hit 24. Add his crafty drop shots, which left the Serb scampering on multiple key points, and it’s a developing all-round game that can conquer any top player on any surface.

Coached by former Spanish No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, Alcaraz showed he had the game and flair, promising to deliver great things in the future. What has transformed is the youngster’s mindset of belonging there. Not in the future, but now.

“I think as a player I have grown a lot, as a person (too),” Alcaraz said in Madrid. “Last year I came here to live these kinds of matches, to be able to gain some experience, to be able to level myself against the best players in the world. Now, I consider myself one of them.”

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