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Tennis prodigy Carlos Alcaraz is inevitable

Alcaraz made history by beating Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic in successive matches, and the progression of his career is remarkable. With his strength, temperament and momentum, there is simply no escaping him
Thu, Jun 09, 2022

PHOTO: ATP Tour YouTube screengrab

When the playwright George Bernard Shaw said youth was wasted on the young, they probably didn’t make ‘kids’ like Carlos Alcaraz back then.

The thinking behind the famous quote was that despite having all their faculties, health and all the gifts being young bestows upon you in sharp focus, youngsters fritter away all that vitality in their youth until it’s too late to do anything meaningful with it.

Looking at his body of work as a tennis player, Alcaraz obviously has never heard of that theory. We’re reliably informed that Alcaraz’s birth certificate says he’s still a teenager, but the way Spain’s next tennis superstar plays the game will have you thinking otherwise.

Alcaraz has already been ranked as high as sixth in the world (he’s back to a ‘lowly’ seventh), has won five ATP titles – including two of the coveted Masters 1 000s – and has earned over $5 million in prize money.

Said ATP titles were all in his first five finals – and all this has been achieved by the age of 19.

And just to enforce the idea that he’s not here to let the grass grow under his feet, the teen from El Parma, in Murcia, did something nobody had ever done before – beating greatest of all time protagonists Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic in successive matches on clay in Madrid last month.

Because he was christened the “new Nadal” from when he was identified as a potential world beater as an 11-year-old, Alcaraz’s defeat of his fellow Spaniard reverberated around the world more as many felt they were witnessing the handing over of keys to the kingdom.

Such was the conviction that the king was dead and all of that that Alcaraz was installed alongside one of his childhood idols as one of the favourites to win the recently concluded French Open at Roland Garros.

While his quarterfinal loss to German Alexander Zverev may have suggested otherwise, the comparisons with Nadal make sense. The way their careers have progressed at a similar age is such that you could swear Alcaraz was deliberately trying to walk in Nadal’s exact footsteps.

Both grew up on a staple diet of clay court tennis, turned pro at 15, won their first ATP titles at 18 and broke into the top 10 rankings as early as their teens. Playing style-wise, in addition to the obligatory explosiveness, there’s a swash and a buckle to how they go about their work which is underpinned by a relentless need to win.

Even off the court they have similar interests, both being keen on tennis and football, and being two of Real Madrid’s more prominent fans. Yet for all they have in common, the differences between them are quite pronounced.

On the results front, Nadal had a bigger body of work by 19, having won 12 titles including a Grand Slam (the French Open, of course) by then. Alcaraz needs to win seven by the end of the year to equal that.

Because of the comparisons, there is an assumption that they play the game the same, and that Nadal is Alcaraz’s biggest hero. But not only was Nadal’s rival Roger Federer the youngster’s first idol, Alcaraz has managed to take a little something from all three of the men considered the greatest tennis players ever to wield a racquet.

According to tennis experts, not only does Alcaraz not play the ‘Spanish way’ – code for engaging in a staring contest from the baseline until somebody blinks five hours later – he has also stolen aspects of the Big Three’s playing traits.

Australian tennis analyst Craig O’Shannessy told the New York Times that he saw Alcaraz as a “blend” of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic: “You’ve got the mentality and tenacity of Nadal and the exquisite timing and willingness to come to the net of Federer.

“And then you have the aggressive baseline play like Djokovic, the power and flexibility to hit big off both sides from the back of the court.”

The obvious question to ask is how a teenager has emerged so fully formed, so complete.

Alcaraz recently told the media he prefers to be called Carlitos or Charlie apparently because the real thing sounds a little like something parents Carlos and Virginia would call him just before grounding him.

But there is nothing diminutive about him: not his play, his physique and certainly not his mentality.

The reason for this dates back to his discovery as a spindly 11-year-old, his coach, former French Open winner and world number Juan Carlos Ferrero, once described as resembling a “piece of spaghetti” when they first met.

Alcaraz’s agent Albert Molina had this clairvoyant idea to get the International Management Group, for years the sports agency of choice for the gifted, to take him on at 12, telling them he’d make it big one day. Molina then put his charge in touch with Ferrero, which was a big part of the jigsaw puzzle as it meant he would have someone who has been there, done that, to oversee his career.

Ferrero was an inspired choice to guide Alcaraz’s career on two fronts.

The 42-year-old’s nickname was “El Mosquito” for an exceedingly wiry frame and indefatigable movement on the court. Having been 1.83m tall and 73kg when he played, he was roughly the same size as Alcaraz’s 1.85m and 72kg and has ideas about developing a body like that.

Where Ferrero will be particularly useful to Alcaraz is in making sure that the youngster’s blockbuster start to his career is more sustained than his. While he, too, was relatively young in winning the 2003 French Open at 21, Ferrero never won another one again amidst injury issues from training himself into the ground.

The one thing that has fascinated tennis fans about Alcaraz is how he’s able to hit the ball as savagely as he does for someone so wiry. The answer came from his physiotherapist and rehab specialist Juanjo Moreno, who branded the youngster a “Ferrari that needs work”.

It’s a description that fell marginally short of calling Alcaraz a useless sports car because the work needed was the small matter of putting an engine in the bodywork. Moreno broke down the meticulous detail that went into turning Alcaraz from a “surprisingly weak” youngster to the punisher who has won 32 of his matches and lost just four this year.

“When he started at the academy, we thought we needed a change in the muscle structures,” Moreno told ATP.com last year. “We needed to work on his musculoskeletal system to give him more speed, more power in his shots and his movement on court.

“We based all that on morphology training, [which is] doing fitness work to achieve those goals without him gaining much muscle mass. Right now, Carlos has reached almost his maximum potential in terms of body type or muscle definition, let’s say he’s at 90% of his potential.”

And to round off the idea that Alcaraz is surrounded by people who know what they are doing, Alcaraz has been working with performance psychologist Isabel Balaguer for a while now, which shows itself in his ability to manage his emotions, big match temperament and some of his utterances.

After winning his fourth title of the year in Madrid, Alcaraz said, “People are going to think I’m one of the favourites [for Roland Garros]... I don’t have it as tension, I have it as motivation”.

While he appears to have overtaken older Next Gen talents like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, who exacted revenge on the Spaniard in Paris but arguably has a lower ceiling in terms of potential, the danger for Alcaraz will be meeting all the expectations on him.

It can’t be easy being touted as the next Grand Slam winner, a future world number one or Rafa Nadal even. But if anyone looks the part it is Alcaraz. By the looks of it there is no escaping Alcaraz.

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