Spanish tennis fans are truly blessed. For the past decade and a half, they have celebrated a man whom many – especially in Madrid – consider to be the greatest of all time. And now, as soon as Rafael Nadal’s body packs up on him, Carlos Alcaraz hoves into view.
Nadal’s fate is not yet certain, but insiders suggest that he will not enter the French Open this year for sentimental reasons. He will only play if he believes he is physically ready to fight for a mind-boggling 15th title at Roland Garros.
As a result, Nadal’s rivals expect him to sit out the clay-court season while he tries to resolve his persistent hip trouble. Novak Djokovic, too, has been struggling with pain in his right elbow – and is rumoured to have a sore shoulder to boot (the result, perhaps, of the heavy balls that have left so many players with wrist, elbow and shoulder issues this season).
All of which leaves Alcaraz – the muscular 19-year-old whose record of P26 W24 this season is the best on tour – as the bookies’ favourite to extend his winning run at the majors. (For clarity, he lifted a first grand-slam title in New York in September, but did not appear at January’s Australian Open because of a thigh injury.)
And this verdict is echoed by Andy Murray, who declares himself a fan of Alcaraz’s all-action style. “He’s really stepped up,” Murray said last week in Madrid, “and is staking his claim for being the next best player in the world for the foreseeable future. I don’t see anyone that’s currently challenging at that level.
“Right now there is a huge opportunity for the young guys coming through,” Murray added. “If you look at your Monte Carlos and Romes and French Opens, whether it’s been Rafa or Novak, one of them has been winning those events. At the moment, they’re not around, or certainly haven’t been competing as much. I hope Rafa is gonna be fit [for Roland Garros] but it doesn’t sound too good, what’s coming out just now.
“If you’re playing the final of one of the major events,” Murray concluded, “it certainly makes it easier if you’re playing against someone who’s never won a major before. As opposed to guys that have done it 22 times and you’ve probably watched all your life growing up.”
The one knock on Alcaraz – as Telegraph Sport pointed out a month ago – is that he has yet to take down Nadal or Djokovic at a major. But this is hardly his fault. Nadal has become an occasional visitor to the tour, while vagaries of scheduling mean that Djokovic hasn’t entered the same tournament as Alcaraz since November’s Paris Masters.
None of this has stopped Alcaraz from attracting the sort of buzz we haven’t witnessed since Nadal was a teenager. When he faced Emil Ruusuvuori on Friday night at Madrid’s Caja Magica – in what was his first ATP match in Spain since he became a major champion – the whole site came alive with an energy that had been completely absent for the previous four days.—AP