Promising Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz turned 18 today. Ponder the 18th birthday. There comes a time in life when birthdays comprise a necklace: beads and memories threaded across the decades. But the day one turns 18 often stands out strictly on its own, full of celebrations, friends, family, romance, and an awareness of life’s imminent possibilities.

There’s a good chance one moment of that day will take on tremendous significance. In Alcaraz’s case, that moment lasted 77 minutes, when he competed on native ground inside Manuel Santana Stadium against Rafael Nadal.  Though Alcaraz lost this second round match, 6-1, 6-2, at this stage of his career, such losses are far more edifying than demoralizing.

“Well, it's amazing, no, to spend my birthday playing against Rafa, learning from him, yeah, playing here in Madrid,” said Alcaraz.  “It could better if I could win, but I really enjoy. I really learn from him, and, yeah, I think this match made me grow up as a player. I really happy to spend my birthday like this.”

The Spanish backdrop was rich. The setting: the Mutua Madrid Open, a tournament for years run by the iconic Spanish player, Hall of Famer Santana, now in the hands of still-active Spaniard Feliciano Lopez. Alcaraz’s coach is a Spanish great, 2003 Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Advertising

Carlos Alcaraz learns birthday lesson against idol Rafael Nadal

Carlos Alcaraz learns birthday lesson against idol Rafael Nadal

Getty Images

As Nadal said after the match, “Yeah, I wish him all the very best. I mean, like Spanish player and like in Spanish fan, I really believe that we need somebody like him, and it's great to have him here.”  Let it also be noted that Nadal is coached by another Spanish legend, 1998 Roland Garros winner Carlos Moya.

And then, of course, looming over all those feelings of national pride, there stood Nadal. More accurately, there moved Nadal, eternally and persistently aware that such matters as the Spanish tennis saga vanish into air once faced with the task at hand.

To Alcaraz’s credit, he already hits the ball proficiently enough to push Nadal into corners. In the opening game, Nadal serving at 30-all, Alcaraz rocketed an untouchable down-the-line backhand return. But at break point, he netted a forehand. Nadal held, broke, his familiar freight train in typical high gear.

Carlos Alcaraz learns birthday lesson against idol Rafael Nadal

Carlos Alcaraz learns birthday lesson against idol Rafael Nadal

Advertising

Getty Images

At this early stage of the match, though, something potentially troubling happened. With Nadal serving at 2-0, 15-15, there came a tremendous rally, including a superb Alcaraz lob, Nadal tracking it down, followed by an Alcaraz drop shot, also retrieved by Nadal. But when Alcaraz leaped up in the air in an effort to reply to another Nadal salvo, he aggravated his rib cage.

The injury required a trainer visit and a five-minute gap between points, casting the concern that Alcaraz would retire, a sad possibility unfortunate for both players. But Alcaraz continued, perhaps to some degree out of respect for Nadal. Wave the white flag versus the homeland hero? To steal from another one-time prodigy, John McEnroe, you cannot be serious.

Said Nadal, “when you make a salad and you are putting ingredients inside the salad, he has, I mean, plenty of ingredients to become a great player. That's the main thing. Then of course nothing is easy. You're gonna have big opponents in front. I mean, nothing is easy in this life.”

The next time Alcaraz won a point came when he served at 0-5 in the first set. At that stage, he’d at last earn a game—but at least by then the injury did not appear to have hindered Alcaraz significantly. He’d only win his second when Nadal served at 3-0 in the second set. Serving at 5-2, Nadal closed out it at 30 with a pattern we have seen many times—inside-out forehand, crosscourt forehand, conclusive overhead.

Carlos Alcaraz learns birthday lesson against idol Rafael Nadal

Carlos Alcaraz learns birthday lesson against idol Rafael Nadal

Getty Images

Said Alcaraz, “Well, this match made me learn a lot, because, well, I have to know how to manage the tough moments and, well, know how to play against these kind of players, no? This is so tough matches, tough players, and I have to learn how to play against them. So I think if I could play more matches like this I will grow up faster, and I think this -- yeah, grow up as a player faster.”

Fitting indeed that after the two shook hands, Nadal asked Alcaraz if he was feeling OK and wished him a happy birthday.  Out came Lopez with a cake. Yes, it’s possible to win three games in a tennis match and still grasp that there is much worthy of celebration.

Said Nadal, “when somebody at his age is able to do the things that he's doing is because you have something special, no? And at the same time, he's humble enough to keep working. He's passionate about the game. So I really believe that he gonna be able to burn cycles very soon, very fast. I really believe that he's a complete player. I mean, he's brave, he's able to go to the net very often. Great forehand, great backhand.”

If today’s match was a brutal demonstration of experience dominating youth, Alcaraz after all was staring up at the tallest hill in tennis: playing Nadal on clay. Even amid such a mountain of a challenge, Alcaraz’s assets were vivid, most of all his flat, hard strokes and willingness to step inside the baseline and deploy forceful court position. His necklace will likely soon be filled with many jewels.

Advertising

Carlos Alcaraz learns birthday lesson against idol Rafael Nadal

Carlos Alcaraz learns birthday lesson against idol Rafael Nadal