No Escaping Alcaraz: He Looks Like A Future World No.1

Carlos Alcaraz in action ahead of the ATP Umag Open.
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It was the Queen of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland who claimed to have “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Well, Carlos Alcaraz looks as if he is on the verge of achieving six impossible things before he turns 19 in May, because he has already achieved some remarkable feats that almost verge on the impossible, most recently this weekend in Rio. In adding a first ATP 500 title to the NextGen Finals title that he triumphantly won in Milan at the end of last year, he increasingly looks like the young player who will eventually emerge to dominate post-Big Three men’s tennis.

Because of the torrential rain in Brazil last Friday, the Rio Open became virtually a 24-hour tournament at the weekend, as the last eight players had to play both a quarterfinal and a semi-final on Saturday, before the surviving two somehow regrouped to play the final on Sunday. It was a grueling schedule that exposed even some of the most experienced players on the ATP Tour, including current and former members of the world’s top 10, but Alcaraz seemed to take it all in his increasingly mighty stride.

First, in the quarterfinal he defeated Matteo Berrettini, the top seed in Rio and current world no.6, in three sets, 6-2 2-6 6-2. Although Berrettini was no doubt fatigued after a grueling match in the previous round with home favourite Thiago Monteiro and his gigantic serve was somewhat neutralized on the relatively slow clay of Rio, Alcaraz was still hugely impressive in beating him. In the first set, he virtually dismantled Berrettini’s serve, breaking him twice, and although the Italian fought back well in the second set and might have carried that momentum into the third set but for another rain break, ultimately it was Alcaraz who dominated the decider. The fact that he took yet another weather-caused disruption in his stride–indeed, he seemed to take it as an opportunity to regroup and galvanize himself after losing the second set–was another indicator of his extraordinary, indeed almost uncanny, maturity.

Defeating Berrettini so comprehensively was undoubtedly the highlight of Alcaraz’s weekend, but his semi-final and final victories were also superb. First, in the semi-final he shrugged off any possible hint of tiredness by defeating Fabio Fognini, the veteran Italian clay-court specialist who had won in Monte Carlo in 2019 (defeating Rafael Nadal in the process), in straight sets. Then, in the final itself Alcaraz effectively took apart one of the most resilient, even obdurate, players on the tour, Diego Schwartzman. After a hard-fought first set, Alcaraz finally broke at 4-4 and never looked back, serving out for the first set and then romping through the second to take it 6-1.

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To have beaten three such experienced and highly-ranked players in a regular ATP 500 event would have been impressive, but for Alcaraz to have done so in little over 24 hours was extraordinary. But then again, even in his short career so far, Alcaraz, like all the very best players, has made the extraordinary appear almost routine.

That was perhaps most evident at the ATP NextGen Finals in Milan at the end of last year. Alcaraz had already enjoyed a brilliant breakthrough season in 2021, culminating on the main tour by reaching the quarterfinal of the US Open. However, playing his direct contemporaries at the end of the season allowed him to show just how far ahead of them he is. He won every single match he played and even in the final, when he faced Sebastian Korda of the USA, the one player who it was thought could challenge him (not least because he is significantly older than Alcaraz at 21), Alcaraz was undeterred and unperturbed. Although Korda is not only older than Alcaraz but taller, with a powerful serve to match his impressive frame, it was Alcaraz who looked like the tennis Goliath and Korda the sporting David as the young Spaniard defeated the American in straight sets and straightforward style.

The fact that within three months Alcaraz has not only easily bested his contemporaries and supposed peers but then gone on to win an ATP 500 event while beating three far more highly-ranked and more experienced players in little more than a single day can be considered collectively as proof that he is a truly remarkable player. In fact, it is arguable that he is the best young male player to emerge in the last 20 years, since The Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic first began playing on the ATP Tour in the early noughties.

What is perhaps most incredible about Alcaraz is that even at this extremely young age he seems to have a game that combines elements of each one of The Big Three. The most obvious comparison is with Nadal, his compatriot. At 6 feet 1, Alcaraz is as tall as Nadal and seems to have the same extraordinarily easy power on both wings, as if he, too, had been trained from childhood by Uncle Toni to play forehand with his “wrong” (non-dominant) hand. However, he also has the flair of Federer, as demonstrated throughout the weekend by the succession of brilliantly disguised drop-shots that he played. Finally, he has the dexterity – the sheer physical flexibility – of Djokovic, as shown when he responded to opponents’ drop shots by sliding in from the baseline (a trademark Djokovic move, on almost any surface) to then play a disguised drop shot of his own. Against Berrettini in particular, that trait was evident and so there must have been times when the Italian thought he was back in the Wimbledon 2021 Final against Djokovic, rather than facing a young player in Rio.

It is that unusual, indeed unprecedented, combination of talents that makes Alcaraz such a complete player already and one who is seemingly destined to rise to World No.1. Indeed, so prodigious is his ability that the real question is not whether he can be a future World No.1 but whether he can be a future BIG ONE, i.e. the player who eventually emerges from the era of The Big Three to become a completely dominant World No.1 in his own right. Obviously, that state of affairs, if it ever comes to pass, is still a long way off. But twice in three months, first in Milan last year and then again this weekend in Rio, Alcaraz has shown enough to suggest that if any young player can achieve that lofty status, it will be him.

Main Photo from Getty.