He is the kind of meteoric rise that sports crave and if he achieves what many predicted – winning the Coupes des Mousquetaires on the Paris clay court at age 19 – he will make headlines around the world.
Alcaraz’s rise – from 141 in the world at the beginning of last year to sixth now – offers a much-needed alternative story to men’s clay tennis.
The Spaniard has won four ATP titles this year – in Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, Miami and Madrid – beating Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev on his way to the title in his country’s capital.
Past and present players have praised the young Spaniard.
Four-time French Open champion Justine Henine said in an interview with Belgian newspaper Sudinfo last week that Alcaraz was “more complete” than Nadal, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, while Zverev has described him as the best player in the world right now. †
“He is absolutely special,” Djokovic told reporters, while Nadal has admitted that his compatriot can beat anyone.
A new king for the clay?
High praise leads to high expectations. But of course behemoths Alcaraz stand in the way of a first grand slam.
Nadal, the ‘King of Clay’, has been almost unbeatable on the red soil since he won the first of his 13 titles at Roland Garos at the age of 19. There has been no better clay court player in the history of the game.
But Nadal, who would take a record-breaking 22nd major title with a win in Paris, is battling a foot injury and more vulnerable than ever. Barring a late pullout, Nadal’s bid for a 14th French Open crown begins against Australian Jordan Thompson.
Djokovic is the defending champion and aims to equalize with Nadal on 21 grand slams. Despite all the attention for Alcaraz, the Serb is the number one in the world and recently won his first title of the season, in Rome, to get in shape at the right time.
Others could also be in the fray. Danill Medvedev is approaching Djokovic’s number 1 spot, but the Russian has skipped the entire clay-court season so far. And the ATP’s ‘Next Gen’ stars, Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipasas, should soon begin to deliver on their grand slam promise.
Taking the clay court for women to another level
The form of Iga Swiatek has made women’s tennis a little more predictable.
The world No. 1 has a 28-game winning streak and if she wins a second French Open, she will equal Venus Williams’ record of 35 consecutive wins this millennium.
A win in the French capital would also make the Pole the first woman to win six tournaments in a row since Justine Henin did in 2007-2008.
In her nine clay court appearances this season, 20-year-old Swiatek has dropped just one set. There hasn’t been a tournament favorite since, well, a fully fit Nadal.
“The pressure is constant,” Swiatek recently told reporters from the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. “It’s not like I’m analyzing it every week because I’d get pretty tired if I did.”
“Creating and managing a healthy and sustainable career these days, especially in the age of social media and mobile devices and other pressures, is something that is a major challenge for almost everyone in elite sport.”
And Simona Halep, a former champion who loves clay, shouldn’t be ruled out either.
Like the ATP, the biggest names in the WTA haven’t been contenders lately. This could be the grand slam where the future of tennis becomes clearer.