CHENNAI: There is nothing quite like watching the rapid ascent of a wunderkind in sport. The talent is pre-advertised, the greatness is pre-ordained and — like this sentence suggests — people tend to deal in hyperbole. This is especially true in a pursuit as individualistic as tennis. There are no teammates to share the glory and their best work lends itself easily to heavily edited YouTube clips or Instagram reels. In 2022, all of the above is applicable to Carlos Alcaraz. He has captured the world of modern professional men's tennis in a way very few have before him. After eviscerating every major challenge that has been put in front of him, he has a new target — become the first teen since Rafael Nadal to win a Major.
To understand why people have wasted little time to anoint Alcaraz as the next superstar of men's tennis, it's important to revisit Nadal's 2005. Back then, the 18-year-old was World No 51 when he began his fourth full year on Tour. Big things were expected of Nadal but nobody knew how soon he would be able to marry talent with results. Before arriving in Paris as a bonafide superstar, Nadal had won Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome (three of the biggest clay court events outside the Paris Major) apart from coming within two points of beating Roger Federer in Miami in straight sets. At the French Open, Nadal faced little difficulty in winning his first ever Slam.
Alcaraz has been on a similar trajectory. He started 2022, his fourth full year on Tour, as No 32 before winning both Barcelona and Madrid (two of the biggest clay events outside the Slam). He also won in Rio, another clay court event, as well as the Miami Masters. While the uncanny similarities are endless including intangibles like a very high pain threshold (Alcaraz turned his ankle before beating Nadal in Madrid) and on-court fashion statements (he also likes to play sleeveless), the 19-year-old is a very different player.
What he has been very successful at doing so far is his ability to not be bracketed one way or another. He's not a counter-puncher, he's not a chip-and-charger, he's not a serve bot. What he does very well, even this early in his career, is be very good at a lot of things. He's adept down both wings, he chases down lost causes, he's effective at the net, has a serve.
Craig O'Shannessy, a strategy coach who has worked with Novak Djokovic, labelled him a '360-degree player', on the official ATP tour website. "Carlos Alcaraz is a 360-degree player. He comes at you from every possible angle," he wrote. "Alcaraz comes at you with a laser forehand. Or a crushing backhand. Or a devilish drop shot. Or serving and volleying. He comes at you so many ways, you don't know which way is up." One part of why the Alcaraz train has generated so much hype in recent weeks is this. He's already blessed with so many weapons capable of damaging even the most experienced of opponents.
Why is this important, especially in big Slam, two-week, best-of-five tennis? He can rely on his variety to see him through matches. Sure, when he starts racking up the matches, opposition coaches will pick something they believe to be a weakness. For the time being though, he's the one doing the hunting. According to ATP's 'Under Pressure Rating' (combination of metrics involving per cent of break points converted, per cent of break points saved, per cent of tie breaks won and per cent of deciding sets won), Alcaraz is rated fourth-best over 52 weeks (a place above Djokovic who's usually considered the king of zero-margin tennis). Right now, he's seemingly made of Kevlar, the fibre made popular by Batman.
In Paris, the tensile strength of the Kevlar will be tested. Following the farce in Australia, Djokovic will aim to pull level with Nadal. For Nadal himself, winning in Paris is all about retaining his kingdom, even though he comes there with a foot that may or may not hold up over two weeks. As Alcaraz eyes up his two greatest threats, the World No 6's Paris dreams revolve around something more fundamental.
He's no longer the future of men's tennis but the present.