The comparison is irresistible. Madrid and red clay. An eager Spaniard, on the ascent, literally in the spring of the year and the brief bloom of his tennis youth. Seventeen-year-old Carlos Alcaraz is akin to a precocious bullfighter, bubbling with grace, skill and ambition.
Today at the Mutua Madrid Open, Alcaraz took just 72 minutes to crush 34th-ranked Adrian Mannarino, 6-4, 6-0. This was the kind of mature, rite-of-passage win a young hopeful must snap up if he is to swiftly make his way up the ranks. It also earned Alcaraz the chance to take on his homeland’s titan, Rafael Nadal—and even do so on native soil. The match will take place Wednesday, which also happens to be Alcaraz’s 18th birthday.
“I watch Rafa Nadal a lot,” Alcaraz said today in Madrid. “Yeah, I always wish to play against Rafa, learn from him. I don't know how to describe this feeling now. It's a dream come true. As you said, I know his game a little. I will try to play my best and let's see what happen.”
As recently as last August, Alcaraz was ranked No. 310. Currently, he’s No. 120. There is an urgency to his movements, not just during points as expected, but also in between them, as is seen more from the young than the old. There is a constant focus, Alcaraz well aware that such veterans as the crafty Mannarino have endured for a reason—and must be taken seriously start to finish. Most notably, there is also a new level of weaponry, demonstrated by Alcaraz’s powerful forehand, whip-like service motion and hearty desire to smother his elders.
The intriguing questions that attend any prodigy: Is this rising flame a form of redlining? Or will Alcaraz eventually raise the bar?
“He already has an amazing level of tennis,” Nadal said recently. “He will be one of the best players in the world soon.”
It is fascinating and delightful to see the way the Spaniards have long held one another in high regard. Many years ago, tennis’ multi-generational empire was Australia, a pipeline of fit and formidable volleyers who hung together and carved up the world. The ‘80s was a rich time for the Swedes, another collective culture that joined forces in the pursuit of Davis Cup and other glories.
But over the last two decades, the teamwork torch has been passed to Spain. Alcaraz has worked closely for years with another Spaniard, former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero. He practices frequently with his countryman and at the Australian Open said he considered compatriot Pablo Carreno Busta “like a brother.”
And now comes the chance to compete versus the greatest Spanish tennis matador of them all. In Australia, Alcaraz practiced versus Nadal. A short YouTube clip reveals the youngster’s grit—and also, just how much territory he had to cover in a single rally, Alcaraz constantly pushed far behind the baseline.
Asked what he learned from the session, Alcaraz said, “He trains with a lot of intensity all the time. He hits the ball very hard. Each ball, he tries to hit harder every ball. I think he's focused from the first ball, from the first ball to the last ball. I think it is a good thing to keep it, yeah.”
Those words aren’t particularly ground-breaking. Still, it’s another to experience Nadal first-hand. Even just to watch him practice from ten feet away, as I have many times, is drastically different than seeing Nadal compete from the distance of a stadium seat or a TV screen.
When the two play on Wednesday, Alcaraz should theoretically feel relaxed. Yet who can blame him if he starts off nervous? But then there will come a time when Alcaraz will forget the resume of the man he’s facing and instead simply play the ball. He will take charge of a rally, back Nadal into a corner and close out the point in grand style.
For that brief moment, Alcaraz will kinesthetically grasp what Nadal has been doing for more than 15 years. As one point of comparison, Alcaraz was two years old in 2005, when Nadal won the first of his five Madrid titles. “It will be a big challenge for me,” Nadal said about the possibility of playing Alcaraz. “And hopefully for him too.”