Who Will Be Carlos Alcaraz’s Long-term Rival?

Daniil Medvedev Australian Open Practice
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As the “Big 3” begin to fade, and Carlos Alcaraz positions himself to compete at the same level, who will present a real and lasting challenge to the rising star over the next decade? The young Spaniard is handily thrashing his way through his mere mortal peers in the top 10, and no one has yet presented much of an obstacle. Could he be like Federer in a few years, who stood atop the rankings alone for over four years straight? Or if there is a challenger, who is he, and where has he been?

He is Daniil Medvedev. And he’s been injured.

An Alcaraz-Medvedev Rivalry

Medvedev’s Pre-Injury Success

The stunning rise of Carlos Alcaraz has come just as Medvedev has stepped away from the tour to deal with an injury. It’s been quickly forgotten how dominant the still-young Russian has been in recent years. He has met the Big 3 four times in Slam finals, two of which were utter five-set thrillers, and one of which was an easy cruise past a burdened Djokovic. He has collected ten titles since firmly planting himself in the top 10 in 2019, four of which were Masters, and he has the highest win percentage (77%) outside of the Big 3, and the most wins against top 10 players (28).

No one else has come close to that track record. Dominic Thiem has four finals and a Slam, but you have to go back an extra year to find them, and he has barely played this last year as he climbs the lonely mountain of a long recovery (within shooting distance of turning 30). Every other young player has had the same open door as Alcaraz, as the Big 3 have been sidelined recently, but have not made their move. And they have had the same opportunities as Medvedev, but haven’t risen to his level.

Outside of the Big 3, only Medvedev has dominated in the way that we are currently seeing Alcaraz dominate. And it’s a  nice twist of fate, written by a skillful narrator, that left Medvedev out of the story while the Spaniard was storming the castle. (Homer didn’t give you Achilles until Hector was about to burn down the ships.)

Tools to Compete with the Rising Star

The reason I think Medvedev poses the best threat to Alcaraz, other than his statistical accomplishments, is because of how his unique combination of power and movement stacks up against Alcaraz’s game. Alcaraz will overpower opponents from the baseline (a la Nadal), but he really flusters people with his ready drop shot, probably the most devastating on tour this side of Djokovic’s fake backhand drop shot.

But while that works against most players, Medvedev has both excellent awareness of his opponents, and exceptional mobility. His long legs combined with a thin frame and loads of energy (remember “Not tired”?) propel him in galloping strides all over the stadium. And his preferred surface (hard court) causes drop shots to bounce a little higher, giving him that much more time to pick them up. He of all players should have least difficulty handling the baseline power of Alcaraz and the crafty drop shot. (Not that “least difficulty” exactly expresses the situation…) Medvedev’s height and movement also make Alcaraz’s follow-up lob that much more difficult, too.

Hard Court Dominance

Speaking of hard courts, these would undoubtedly be the plain of battle for any meaningful matches. Alcaraz figures to cruise past Medvedev on clay without difficulty, while the Russian pleads with match supervisors to disqualify him so he can go home. But lacking clay court skill hasn’t seemed to hurt Medvedev in the rankings, as he has sat for a while at #2, and even flitted on the #1 spot briefly.

As a further demonstration of Medvedev’s dominance, and the level he can achieve—in the 2020 ATP Finals, he won all five of his matches, beating the players ranked #1, 2, 3, 7, and 9 in the world (the first time anyone had ever beaten the top 3 in the finals). This was en route to a 20-match win streak that spanned 2020-21, which included a whopping 12 wins over top 10 players. These sorts of superlatives are necessary, because we are trying to compare someone to a young player who has been achieving similar feats this season (Alcaraz is 8-2 against the top 10 this year, with four titles and a 28-3 record).

What about the rest of the NextGen?

No other player outside of Nadal and Djokovic have shown anything like that recently. Alexander Zverev has come closest, but he has lost five of his last six to Medvedev, has only one Slam final appearance and no titles, and had a poor albeit tired showing against Alcaraz in Madrid. As for Stefanos Tsitsipas, for all his accomplishments, he is already 0-3 against the Spaniard. (In general, Mevedev leads these other NextGen players in most categories over the past few years, including highest ranking, slam wins and finals, Masters wins, totals titles, win percentage, and wins against the top 10.)

Honorable Mentions

I would be remiss if I didn’t give some honorable mentions. Zverev and Tsitsipas have already been named, and there are two other players who I think could maybe challenge Carlos Alcaraz long-term. They are very similar to each other, and both share the same flaw—which, if corrected, could put them in contention for challenging Alcaraz and the #1 spot for years to come. Who are they?

Jannik Sinner and Andrey Rublev. They are almost identical in all respects, except that Rublev is a bit more aggressive, and Sinner defensive. The flaw they share is in their physique, where I think they would need to bulk up ten pounds or so to compete at the top (Djokovic outweighs them by about five pounds, and Nadal by twenty). But otherwise, their combination of quickness, power, height, and mental strength puts them in or near the bullseye for great tennis players. And Sinner’s Alcaraz-like rise to the top reminds me of…well, Alcaraz. (The Italian rose almost 500 spots in the rankings in 2019 to break into the top 100, for most of which he was only 17 years old.)

Barring the sudden rise of any other young player (Holger Rune?), these are the ones that I think have the best chance to be competitive at the top.

US Open Showdown to Start the Rivalry?

As for Medvedev, we will have to give him some time to grumble his way through clay season, and then to ramp up his powers early in the hard court circuit. But he should be at his peak when it comes time to defend his US Open title (if he’ll be allowed to play). He and Alcaraz could be standing right next to each other in the rankings at that point (Alcaraz on either side of #2), and could fall on opposite ends of the draw. Thus the final could be the first great battle in this budding clash of titans.

Maybe someone else will arrive on the scene to challenge the young Spanish superstar, or maybe he’ll dominate by himself for awhile (or maybe we’re over-rating him this early in his career?); but as for young players currently on tour who figure to give him a run for his money, Medvedev is in pole position to start that rivalry.

Main Photo from Getty.