Carlos Alcaraz has done it again. By retaining his title in Barcelona so comfortably against Stefanos Tsitsipas, he has reminded everyone that, for all the undoubted merits of all the other young male players currently vying at the top of men’s tennis (Holger Rune, Jannik Sinner, Lorenzo Musetti et al), he stands alone, not least for being the only one of them so far to win a Major, let alone reach world #1. But where does Alcaraz rank among all the other great male teenage champions of tennis from the past?
The young Spaniard has less than 10 days of his teens left (he turns 20 on 5 May), so it seemed the perfect time to assess exactly where he ranks in the pantheon of great male teenage tennis players.
Here, in reverse order, are the top five.
- Carlos Alcaraz: Majors won as a teenager: 1; Total Majors won: 1 (to date)
It might seem strange to rank Alcaraz so low in this list, given his formidable achievements so far, above all becoming the youngest ever world #1 since the world rankings began in the early 1970s. However, in tennis it is ultimately the cold hard currency of Major titles that counts the most and it is for that reason that Alcaraz only achieves this relatively low ranking. By the end of his career, however, he may well have exceeded the total number of Majors won by everyone else on this list – including his compatriot at #4.
- Rafael Nadal: Majors won as a teenager: 1; Total Majors won: 22 (to date)
Rafael Nadal only narrowly missed out on being a two-time Major-winner as a teenager, because he turned 20 less than a week after he won his second French Open in 2006, a year after his first triumph at Roland Garros. However, he would more than make up for it afterwards by winning a total of 22 Majors (to date), which puts him level with Novak Djokovic as the Major-winningest man in tennis history.
- Bjorn Borg: Majors won as a teenager: 2; Total Majors won: 11
In Britain, where of course he was the King of Wimbledon for so long (five times in succession between 1976 and 1980), it always seems slightly strange, if not counter-intuitive, that Borg was equally good, if not better, on clay, winning six French Opens between 1974 and 1981. Certainly, no man before or since – not even The Big Three of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer – has come so close to dominating both surfaces so completely at the same time. And it was on clay that Borg’s first two Major titles came, as he triumphed at Roland Garros twice in succession, in 1974 and 1975, a year before he won his first Wimbledon title.
- Boris Becker: Majors won as a teenager: 2; Total Majors won: 6
Boris Becker just shades Bjorn Borg as the top “BB” on this list by dint of the fact that he was even younger when he won his first Major, at Wimbledon in 1985 (when he was only 17), than Borg was when he won his first French Open (the great Swede had just turned 18 when he first triumphed at Roland Garros in 1974). Also, it is arguable that Becker’s triumph at Wimbledon was even more seismic than that of Borg in Paris because of the nature of it: he was unseeded and came from virtually nowhere to win the tournament, whereas Borg had already been identified as a potential champion before he conquered Roland Garros.
1.Mats Wilander: Majors won as a teenager: 2; Total Majors won: 7
Spanish tennis fans now must feel like Swedish tennis fans felt in the early 1980s, namely that one great champion from their country was being immediately followed by another. Now, it is Carlos Alcaraz who is following fast on the heels of Rafael Nadal; in 1982, it was Mats Wilander who prolonged Sweden’s imperial phase in tennis after all the triumphs of Bjorn Borg.
And Wilander just about wins the title of tennis’s greatest ever male teenage champion by virtue of the fact that he won his first two Majors on two different surfaces: first, on clay in Paris in 1982; and then on grass in Melbourne in 1983, four years before the Australian Open switched from grass to hardcourt. That extra versatility makes him the greatest ever teenage male tennis champion.
But Might Alcaraz Ultimately End Up As The Best?
So, assessed purely on his achievements as a teenager, Carlos Alcaraz only comes bottom of this list and just ahead of the only other two male players to win a Major as a teenager in the Open Era: Pete Sampras, who won the 1990 US Open as a 19-year-old and went on to win a total of 14 Majors; and Michael Chang, whose 1989 French Open triumph, when he was just 17 (and 109 days) and the youngest ever male Major-winner, was his only ever Grand Slam triumph.
However, it is still possible that Alcaraz will have the last laugh by going on to become the greatest of all these teenage male champions. That is a big claim to make, of course, especially given that Rafael Nadal has won 22 Majors and may yet win more if he can ever recover from his current, long-running injury problems.
However, the truth is that Alcaraz, notwithstanding his relative lack of Major triumphs as a teenager (only one compared to the two won by Becker, Borg and Wilander), has arguably made the greatest impact on tennis that any teenager has ever made. That is because, of course, he has emerged almost immediately in the wake of The Big Three to show that he might be the ultimate post-Big Three player, one who somehow combines the best qualities of each of The Big Three: Federer’s flair; Nadal’s competitiveness; and Djokovic’s resilience (in every sense).
Consequently, it is just possible that, as his coach Juan-Carlos Fererro joked after his first Major win in New York last September, he will go on to win “thirty” Majors. And if he does that, then he will no longer just be compared with other teenage male tennis champions but with those other great teenage champions who ultimately went on to transform their sport, such as Pelé in football and Jonah Lomu in rugby union.
Main photo credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports