As tennis fans around the world scanned through the Australian Open men’s draw, plenty of matches stood out. Denis Shapovalov vs Jannik Sinner, Grigor Dimitrov vs Marin Cilic, and Kei Nishikori vs Pablo Carreno Busta all are matchups that jump off the page.
But, what if I told you there was a matchup between two players, both realizing their potential, in great form, and with excellent fighting spirits? You would be desperate to watch that match.
That match just happens to be Carlos Alcaraz vs Botic Van de Zandschulp.
Carlos Alcaraz vs Botic Van de Zandschulp
The players’ pathways to this high-stakes Australian Open first round matchup were certainly different. Alcaraz has certainly been making more waves in the tennis media. At only 17 years old, he has has taken the tennis world by storm.
Winning his first ATP Futures title not too long after his 16th birthday, Alcaraz has had to develop his game under the intense pressure that such early success can bring.
In fact, Alcaraz won his first three Futures finals, all at the age of 16. He seemed to have turned a corner even more-so in the early stages of 2020. Before the coronavirus hiatus, Alcaraz had already reached three Futures finals during the calendar year, winning two of those matches. The two wins were 6-0 6-2 and 6-3 6-4 over Evan Furness, wins that look better in hindsight due to Furness’ recent Futures and Challenger success.
Clearly, Alcaraz had worked extremely hard during the hiatus, as he came out of the break with vengeance. The Spaniard finished the 2020 season with four Challenger finals, winning three of the four.
After winning that third Challenger over Martinez right near where he grew up in Spain, Alcaraz told the ATP’s Josh Meiseles,”It makes me proud to play like this at home and in front of everyone I know. I’m very happy and this is motivation to continue fighting for more.”
And, based on his results, Alcaraz was able to turn that motivation into tangible success.
Alcaraz started 2021 with a successful Australian Open qualifying campaign. Despite relatively little experience on hard courts, he only dropped one set in qualifying and won the final six sets he played.
The Spaniard then won a couple rounds in the Great Ocean Road Open warmup event, including a victory over World No. 14 David Goffin, setting himself up perfectly for the Australian Open.
Alcaraz is currently situated at World No. 140, just four spots away from his career high of World No. 136.
Botic Van de Zandschulp
25 year-old Botic Van de Zandschulp also won three Futures events without losing a final to start his career, but with significantly less fanfare.
Then, unlike Alcaraz, the Veenendaal, Netherlands native lost his next six Futures finals in a row, winning one set among those six finals.
Of course, it was nice to see him making so many finals. And before transitioning making the leap to being a Challenger Tour player, Van de Zandschulp had reached 15 Futures finals, winning six of those 15.
And six of those Futures finals happened in 2019, which helped transition Van de Zandschulp nicely into a great result at a Challenger. Late in the 2019 season, Van de Zanschulp won his first, and at this point only, Challenger Tour singles title over Bernarbe Zapata Miralles. The indoor hard courts of Hamburg suited his big game well and even though he wasn’t a well-known player or had gotten a lot of attention at that point, he was quietly progressing nicely.
The quick-court success for Van de Zandschulp would continue, as he made two more Challenger finals in 2020. In Koblenz, he lost to Tomas Machac on indoor hard and post-hiatus in Ismaning, he lost to Marc-Andrea Huesler on carpet.
In Australian Open qualifying, Van de Zandschulp also was able to navigate his way to the main draw. This included a win over star Lorenzo Musetti in the first round. Then, at the Great Ocean Road Open, Van de Zandschulp won three matches in a row, including a big straight-sets win over Reilly Opelka.
He came within one point of the semifinals, but couldn’t close it out against Karen Khachanov. Even so, it was an excellent week for the Dutchman.
Van de Zandschulp is currently sitting at a career high of World No. 150 and is playing the tennis of his life.
So, now that we’ve established that these are certainly two tough competitors, how will this match play out?
Alcaraz’s progression on hard courts has been stunning. He’s shown through his Challenger Tour results his acumen on clay, but given that his hard court results before 2021 surrounded his Futures successes, it was hard to say how he would translate his game to hard courts at the higher levels of tennis.
But, it’s clear that he’s been able to do that very successfully.
Van de Zandschulp plays an aggressive style of tennis and his hard court astuteness has never been questioned. Looking to control points with his big serve and really stay on top, or inside, the baseline, Van de Zandschulp has a knack for quickly putting opponents on the defensive.
Alcaraz has a bigger game too. His forehand is huge and explodes off the racquet and his serve is getting better-and-better. But, is he going to be able to sustain this level on hard given his relative lack of experience on hard courts at this level? I’m not sure.
On clay, it’s harder to rush opponents because the surface is slower, but given the hard court surface and Van de Zandschulp’s natural game, he will be able to rush Alcaraz here and make the Spaniard very uncomfortable.
With all of this being said, I do rate Van de Zandschulp as the slight favorite here.
This is the Major debut for both players. With such an occasion comes nerves and the new experience of playing best-of-five, which could be potentially even rougher than usual because of the quarantine.
How that will affect both players remains unknown. They’re navigating this road together. As qualifiers, as Grand Slam debutantes, and as competitors who are making a name for themselves in game.
Of course, their backgrounds are different, their game styles are different, and quite frankly, their moods will certainly be different after this match is over.
Yet, regardless of the result, both Carlos Alcaraz and Botic Van de Zandschulp have a lot to be proud of.
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