Is Alcaraz the next Nadal?

Alcaraz’s blazing speed and ferocious determination to retrieve any shot, no matter how ridiculously far off the court, brought back memories of the most renowned Spaniard in tennis history.

Ready for superstardom: Carlos Alcaraz signs autographs after defeating Casper Ruud, of Norway 7-5, 6-4 in the men's final of the Miami Open tennis tournament. The young Spaniard’s goals are as big as his potent groundstrokes and serve. “Being the No. 1 in the world, a Grand Slam champion, Olympic medals... I dream big,” he told ATP.com.   -  AP

“He already has a great level of tennis today, but I really believe that he is going to be a fantastic player in the near future.”

– Rafael Nadal, on just-turned-18 Carlos Alcaraz in May 2021

“He has the best combination of raw power and touch I’ve ever seen.”

– All-time great Martina Navratilova, after Alcaraz won the 2022 Miami Open

Flash back 19 years. Roger Federer served and volleyed to his first Wimbledon title. Serena Williams edged her sister Venus in the Australian and Wimbledon finals, while Justine Henin outplayed fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters in the French and US Open finals.

As spectacular as these young champions were, a long-haired, 16-year-old Spaniard in sleeveless shirts and pirate pants intrigued, even captivated, me more. I first saw Rafael Nadal on my old-fashioned 28” TV set. Like a tennis Houdini, he disappeared outside the screen sprinting for shots far beyond the sidelines and baseline, only to miraculously reappear after hitting the most extraordinary defensive shots. His much older and more aggressive opponents needed four, five, six, or even seven shots to win a point if they didn’t err before then.

 

Amazed at my discovery, I eagerly told my tennis friends, “This kid will win four to eight French Open titles, for sure.” I cautioned that Nadal would have to improve his serve, volley, and overall offense to win majors on grass and hard courts. As enthralled as I was, I never could have imagined this teen sensation would amass 13 French Open and 21 Grand Slam titles, both all-time records.

READ: Tennis, Carlitos way: Carlos Alcaraz, rise of the Spanish sensation

In the spring of 2003, the Spanish lefty flashed unmistakable signs of future greatness on the European clay. Whacking his incomparable forehand and shouting “Vamos!” after point winners, Rafa upset 2002 French Open champion Albert Costa at Monte Carlo and then 1998 French Open winner Carlos Moya at Hamburg. Moya, who also comes from Mallorca, a tranquil island off Spain’s eastern coast, rightly predicted his longtime friend would someday rank No. 1, although he couldn’t have foreseen he’d coach Nadal more than a decade later.

 

As it turned out, I also couldn’t have foreseen something I witnessed about a year ago. Rob Koenig, the esteemed tennis analyst on Amazon Prime (UK) and Tennis Channel (U.S.), was being interviewed on a Podcast I fortuitously heard. Koenig was raving about a Spanish teenager I had barely heard of. At first, the name sounded like it was Alcatraz, America’s notorious prison for the most dastardly criminals. Ah, close but not quite. I checked the ATP rankings under Spain and learned it was spelled Alcaraz. I immediately went to YouTube—where else, these days? — and watched Carlos Alcaraz play his boyhood rival, the Italian Lorenzo Musetti.

I was astounded at their precocious shotmaking — rocket groundstrokes on the dead run followed by sadistic drop shots followed by incredible gets followed by deadly passing shots. You name it, these whiz kids hit it.

But most of all, their never-say-die defense, especially that of Alcaraz, was something to behold. His blazing speed and ferocious determination to retrieve any shot, no matter how ridiculously far off the court, brought back memories of the most renowned Spaniard in tennis history.

Like Bill Murray in the fantasy film “Groundhog Day,” I could not believe what was happening. Was I reliving on YouTube in Carlos Alcaraz a right-handed reincarnation of Rafael Nadal in 2003? Was that possible?

Flash forward to early 2022. Alcaraz was no chimera. On the contrary, the new Spanish Bull—the moniker is more fitting than Bullfighter or Matador — was starting to fulfill the great expectations of tennis cognoscenti. His career trajectory was strikingly similar to that of his boyhood idol.

At Rio de Janeiro this February, Alcaraz rampaged through the field with wins over No. 6 Matteo Berrettini, No. 38 Fabio Fognini, and No. 14 Diego Schwartzman in the final to become the youngest ever to win an ATP 500 tournament. At 18 years, nine months, and 16 days, he also became the youngest active player to rank in the top 20, bettering Nadal’s 2005 record by 15 days.

Breakthrough Tournament

The breakthrough tournament for Alcaraz came last year at the US Open. As the Spaniard slugged it out with world No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas on Arthur Ashe Stadium, a boisterous crowd helped him overcome a horrendous fourth set to prevail 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(2), 0-6, 7-6(5) and reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. “Ball speed was incredible. I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard,” a thoroughly impressed Tsitsipas said. The Spaniard became the youngest player to defeat a top 3 opponent at a major since Michael Chang, 17, shocked No. 1 Ivan Lendl and No. 3 Stefan Edberg to win Roland Garros in 1989.

“When you see somebody at 18 who can hit the ball that big already off both sides and moves that well, it’s close to unique,” Paul Annacone, who coached superstars Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, told The New York Times. “His backhand is actually better than his forehand. He misses his forehand [occasionally]. It’s huge, but he misses it. He doesn’t miss the backhand much at all. Sometimes I do wonder, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, whether someone who plays like that is really fearless or just doesn’t have any tennis IQ yet. That’s the unknown, but if you look at the kid’s tools, once he understands how to open up the court and use short angles and realize he doesn’t need to blast everything, it will be pretty scary.”

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Shot selection is often the bane of young players, especially those with a vast repertoire of shots. But Alcaraz can learn much from former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, his highly regarded coach, and from YouTube videos of Nadal during his early prime when his game broadened and evolved into super high-percentage tennis. Upsets over top-tenners Berrettini at Vienna and Jannik Sinner at Paris in late 2021 demonstrated Alcaraz’s continuing progress.

Although Alcaraz is frequently compared to Nadal, the rising star last year said, “I like to play aggressive, with many winners. I would define myself as Federer.” Just imagine what a composite of superstars Federer and Nadal could do!

Toni Nadal, who coached his nephew Rafael for 27 years, told Radius Brand, “It is fair that comparisons be made [with Nadal]. From the first time I saw him play, I was already surprised. Carlos, at this age [18], is more accomplished than Rafa was at his age on a technical level.”

Hopes were high for the wunderkind at the 2022 Australian Open, especially with the rehabbing Federer along with the unvaccinated Djokovic not in the draw, and Nadal a question-mark because of foot problems combined with a recent case of Covid-19. A tough draw pitted Alcaraz against Berrettini in a third-round blockbuster. It lived up to expectations until 6-5 for Berrettini in the fifth-set tiebreaker when the kid’s inexperience showed. A Berrettini forehand winner and three costly Alcaraz unforced errors, including a fatal double fault on match point, gave the Italian veteran a 6-2, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 2-6, 7-6 (5) triumph. The bright side of this heartbreaking loss was that it further confirmed Alcaraz’s status as an elite player on hard courts.

Currently ranked No. 19, Alcaraz is both ambitious and realistic. “Thanks to Rafa, I learned the importance of playing with high energy and giving everything from the first ball to the last,” he said. “The challenge of trying to go to where Rafa has gone is also a big motivation for me, even if I know it’s all but impossible.”

Even so, the young Spaniard’s goals are as big as his potent groundstrokes and serve, which has reached 134 mph. “Being the No. 1 in the world, a Grand Slam champion, Olympic medals... I dream big,” he told atptour.com.

In right company: Carlos Alcaraz of Spain celebrates with his coach and former World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero after winning his first Masters title at the Miami Open. “I’m grateful that people think I can be the best in the world, but my team and I know how difficult it is. I have Juan Carlos [Ferrero], who can tell me how difficult it is to reach No. 1 in the world and what a sacrifice it is. I think I’m on the right path. If I stay on it and keep doing things right, I’ll have chances, although that doesn’t guarantee anything,” Alcaraz said.   -  AFP

 

And why not? He seems to have everything a champion, maybe even an all-time great, needs. Further, he embraces the prospect and the pressure he knows will only become greater. “People have high expectations of me,” Alcaraz said. “I’m grateful that people think I can be the best in the world, but my team and I know how difficult it is. I have Juan Carlos [Ferrero], who can tell me how difficult it is to reach No. 1 in the world and what a sacrifice it is. I think I’m on the right path. If I stay on it and keep doing things right, I’ll have chances, although that doesn’t guarantee anything.”

From Scrawny to Brawny

Alcaraz has left no stone unturned in his quest to be the best. During the past 18 months, the once-scrawny, 6’1” teenager the ATP Media Guide still lists at 159 pounds, has added about 20 pounds of rippling, Rafa-like muscles. He showed off his brawny new physique in a recent issue of Spain’s Men’s Health magazine.

In the cover photo, his demeanour looks stern, even intimidating, much like his on-court game face, only occasionally indulging in a quick smile. But Carlos, who’s called the more endearing “Carlito” by his family and friends, assures us that toughness is just one side of his personality. “Outside the court, I’m a relaxed guy, pleasant, always laughing and making jokes,” he said. “I am totally the opposite of what I am on the court.” What are the main similarities between the young man from Murcia and the ageless legend from Manacor? “Besides their both being Spanish, they have world-class backhands, and they’re incredibly clutch players,” said Koenig. “Before Alcaraz lost that heartbreaker, 7-6 in the fifth set at the Australian Open, he had a perfect 8-0 in deciding set tiebreakers. It took one of the best players in the world, Berrettini, to get the better of him. Don’t forget, in Vienna, he beat Berrettini in a third-set tiebreaker. Now he has an outstanding 8-1 record. That’s incredible.” Alcaraz also ranks an impressive No. 6 among the ATP Under Pressure Leaders.

“The fact he is clutch under the microscope of pressure will give him more confidence over someone like Felix Auger-Aliassime, who lost his first eight finals,” continued Koenig. “That creates a little bit of mental scarring early in his career for Felix. On the contrary, for Alcaraz, it gives him enormous self-belief.”

Another similarity is technical. “They both hit their forehands with a straight elbow, which not many pros do,” noted Koenig, who beat Pat Rafter and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in singles and ranked No. 28 in doubles in the 1990s. “I believe it’s the way to generate the most power. Federer, [Fernando] Verdasco, and [Juan Martin] Del Potro also come to mind for straight-elbow forehands. But the way they execute their follow-throughs could not be more different. Nadal has a buggy-whip, while Alcaraz has a conventional finish more often than not. The forehand of Alcaraz is technically better, but Nadal capitalizes on his left-handedness to the nth degree.”

The future: At Rio de Janeiro this February, Carlos Alcaraz rampaged through the field with wins over No. 6 Matteo Berrettini, No. 38 Fabio Fognini, and No. 14 Diego Schwartzman in the final to become the youngest ever to win an ATP 500 tournament. Alcaraz has started to fulfill the great expectations of tennis cognoscenti. His career trajectory is strikingly similar to that of Nadal.   -  Getty Images

 

Their volleys and overall net game differ in terms of their learning curve. “At the age of 18, Alcaraz’s volley is much better than Nadal’s was,” said Koenig. “Alcaraz looks very natural at the net. Nadal improved to become one of the best volleyers in the game. Alcaraz’s willingness to come forward because he’s so comfortable at net also makes him different from Nadal at 18.”

The technical superiority of Alcaraz also applies to the serve, according to Koenig. “I would take Alcaraz’s serve every day of the week. The fact that Nadal is a lefty has given him an extra 10% to 15% on that shot. He’s maximized that so much,” said Koenig. “But a lot less can go wrong on Alcaraz’s serve. Unlike Nadal’s serve, there won’t be much tinkering with it as the years go on.”

Carlos’ father (also named Carlos), formerly an excellent junior player and now a sports director at a tennis club in Murcia, coached him until he was 14. “He did a fantastic job creating a very robust player,” said Koenig. “Another similarity is how from an early age they both surrounded themselves with such good teams. The input Alcaraz is getting from Juan Carlos Ferrero is fantastic. And he has a good agent, Albert Molina, from Murcia, who discovered him when he was very young. So far that team has remained intact and robust, and that’s very important when you’re developing a young player.”

Greatest Similarity

What is the greatest similarity between Alcaraz and Nadal? “Their mental toughness when they were so young is amazing,” said Koenig.

Not surprisingly, the fist-pumping Alcaraz relishes the mental challenge tennis poses. “For me, tennis is purely mental,” he told Men’s Health. “In the end, you are alone there on the court, and it is you and only you who have to know how to overcome and find solutions.” One more thing — their favourite sport other than tennis is golf. Perhaps their biggest off-court difference is that Alcaraz loves animals, especially dogs and cats, while Nadal is afraid of dogs.

Backhand wizard: What are the main similarities between Alcaraz and Nadal? “Besides their both being Spanish, they have world-class backhands, and they’re incredibly clutch players,” said tennis analyst Rob Koenig.   -  AFP

 

Can Alcaraz beat any of the new Big Three—Nadal, Djokovic, and Daniil Medvedev, who grabbed the No. 1 ranking on Feb. 28 — or win a Grand Slam title this year?

“I think he’ll beat one of them,” Koenig predicted. “I don’t know which one. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he beats Medvedev on a clay court. That’s his best shot because it’s Medvedev’s weakest surface and his strongest surface. There I like Alcaraz’s chances a lot.

“I don’t think he’ll win a Grand Slam this year,” Koenig said. “I don’t think he’s quite at the level of Djokovic and Nadal. But next year, with Djokovic and Nadal a year older, Alcaraz’s chances would improve dramatically. Also, his chances will improve because of his added experience on Tour and at the majors. I’m not saying he has no chance this year, but his chances are very slim.”

Koenig’s Ratings for Carlos Alcaraz

  • Forehand — 8.5
  • Backhand — 8
  • Serve — 8
  • Volley — 7.5
  • Serve Return — 8
  • Overhead — 8
  • Touch Shots — 8
  • Speed — 8.5
  • Stamina — 9
  • Athleticism — 9
  • Tactics — 8
  • Competitiveness — 10

 

Keonig strongly doubts anyone will ever break Nadal’s unfathomable Slam record of 13 French Open titles at any major. But what about Nadal’s astounding record of 21 Grand Slam titles?

“I don’t think anyone in my lifetime will win any major 13 times, let alone the French,” said Koenig. “I’ll say no to the French Open. Nadal is once in a generation kind of player. And Alcaraz will have enough dips that he won’t be able to have the consistency of Rafa for 15 or 20 years. And 21 majors? I think Alcaraz would be happy to sign up for [winning] double-digit majors right now.

“We’re nearing the end of The Greatest Generation,” said Koenig. “[Twenty years ago] I never thought anyone would surpass Pete Sampras [who won 14 majors]. But never say ‘Never.’ We’ve learned that in our sport. I would have to say 21 majors is beyond Alcaraz’s reach. But if I could be part of another generation calling [TV] matches for a guy who was going to surpass even one, let alone two, of those records, I would be more than happy to be wrong with my prediction.”

Whatever happens on Carlos’s road towards stardom, he doesn’t want to be called “the new Nadal” or “the next Nadal.”

“I don’t feel [like] anyone’s replacement,” he told Men’s Health. “I want to be known as Carlos Alcaraz and not as Rafa Nadal’s successor. I want my name to be learned.”

Rest assured, Carlos, at the rate you’re skyrocketing to the top of the game, your name will be learned, even famous, very soon.

 

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