New champ dethrones a king | Sunday Observer

New champ dethrones a king

22 May, 2022
Carlos Alcaraz
Carlos Alcaraz

It felt apt that Carlos Alcaraz’s victory over Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Open - which seemed like a seminal moment in the passing of power - was watched by Spain’s King Felipe VI.

While Nadal is not prepared to abdicate from his ‘King of Clay’ throne, Alcaraz’s first victory over one of his childhood idols - and subsequent lifting of the Madrid title - was the strongest sign yet the 19-year-old Spaniard is ready to rule the men’s game.

Alcaraz, long touted as a future Grand Slam champion after being identified as a potential superstar aged 11, has dominated the ATP Tour in recent weeks.

The next step is transferring this form into a Grand Slam and the best-of-five sets format, with the first opportunity coming at the French Open, which starts on Sunday.

If Alcaraz was to win at Roland Garros - where 35-year-old Nadal has been almost unbeatable over the past two decades - then the leap from tennis sensation to mainstream recognition would be complete.

Fellow players and pundits have tipped him to do just that, while bookmakers have made him one of the favourites alongside 13-time winner Nadal - who is trying to manage a foot injury - and defending champion Novak Djokovic. So just who is this youngster once branded ‘a piece of spaghetti’ who has got the tennis world salivating? And will he deliver?

Winning this month’s Madrid Open - the most prestigious tournament in his homeland - was Alcaraz’s fourth title of 2022. No other man has won as many.

A tally of 28 match wins this year was also unparalleled going into the Italian Open, which Alcaraz skipped to preserve himself for Roland Garros.

In May 2021, he was ranked 120th in the world. A year later, he is sixth.

“People are going to think that I’m one of the favourites to win Roland Garros,” Alcaraz said after he thrashed defending champion Alexander Zverev to win the Madrid title.

“I don’t have it as tension, I have it as a motivation.”

Djokovic thinks there is “no doubt” Alcaraz can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires on 5 June, while Zverev labelled the teenager the “best player in the world right now”.

After losing to Alcaraz in Madrid, Nadal conceded it was the start of the “handover”.

“If it’s today or not, we will see it in the next months,” the 21-time Grand Slam champion added.

Alcaraz’s work in the gym was clear to see in a bulked-up physique when he returned to court at the start of the 2022 season. Alcaraz’s best performance at a Grand Slam so far has been reaching the US Open quarter-finals last year and many expect the sixth seed to match that run, if not better it, at Roland Garros.

Clay is the surface on which he grew up playing in Spain and four of his five ATP titles have come on the red dirt. Winning a major title this year is Alcaraz’s next goal and, to help him achieve it, he can count on guidance from a man who has been there and done it - coach Juan Carlos Ferrero.

“The fact that I have lived all these situations makes me realise better about how he feels and how to manage those situations,” the Spanish former world number one and 2003 French Open champion told BBC Sport.

“Winning a Grand Slam is really hard. It is competing against the best in their peaks in pretty long matches.

“We need to keep working, keep focus on our work and let all the noise happening around not affect him.

“As I used to say to him: he hasn’t matched the achievements of anyone yet.”

Alcaraz’s sharp rise in a stunning year has been down to his discipline and commitment on and off court.

Particular focus has been put on improving shot selection and building a body that can cope with the physical demands placed upon the world’s best players.

“We worked a lot on his fitness because before, as I joke sometimes, he was like a piece of spaghetti,” said Ferrero. “We also work on all strokes and make special emphasis on his shot selection. He has a lot of talent and needs to order all the options he has while hitting.

“Being orderly off the court has been important to work on too. To be one of the best, you need also to make this effort.”

Alcaraz’s victory at the Madrid Open was splashed over the front pages of national newspapers - ABC’s headline saying he’s ‘taking over’ and El Pais announcing a ‘new star is born’ - as well as sports papers like Marca and Mundo Deportivo

In Madrid, Alcaraz beat three of the players ranked inside the world’s top four. No player had achieved that at a Masters 1000 event since Argentina’s David Nalbandian in 2007.

Nadal was the first to fall in the quarter-finals before 20-time major winner Djokovic and Olympic champion Zverev were also despatched.

Alcaraz’s performance in a one-sided win against Germany’s Zverev was described by 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova as “a downright beating”.

“He has got no weaknesses. I don’t know what I’d do if I was playing him,” said Navratilova, who was a courtside analyst in Madrid for Amazon Prime.

Zverev looked stunned by the manner of his destruction, while Greek world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas said he has been “inspired a lot” by Alcaraz’s success.

As leading members of the ‘Next Gen’ group - the wave of early 20-somethings aiming to fill the void soon to be left by Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer - Zverev and Tsitsipas fully realise the younger Alcaraz is now another major obstacle in their quest for Grand Slam titles.

“I really do think he has leapfrogged them [the Next Gen players], he is ahead of them now,” said Annabel Croft, the former British number one who is also an analyst for Amazon Prime.

“They are going to be chasing him and trying to figure out ways to bring their level up. He is sending shockwaves through the locker room.”

Born and raised in El Palmar, a town outside Murcia in southern Spain, he typifies the characteristics of the people from a traditionally agricultural region heavily reliant on the export of fruit and vegetables.

Recently he was invited on to El Hormiguero - a popular chat show on Spanish television - and celebrated with Real Madrid’s footballers on the Bernabeu pitch after they clinched another La Liga title.

That does not distract him from the day job. Since Alcaraz was 15, the hard work has been put in with Ferrero at his academy about an hour’s drive from Alcaraz’s home. (BBC Sport)