Alcaraz: From qualifier to contender in 12 months

Spanish teen enjoys meteoric rise and arrives to RG as one of the favourites for the title

Carlos Alcaraz, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

A lanky, teenage Carlos Alcaraz could barely believe the attention fast building around him on his Grand Slam main draw debut at Melbourne Park last year.

Unable to contain his broad smile in a string of interviews, the young Murcian was soaking in every bit of the ride following an upset of David Goffin leading in, a practice session with his idol Rafael Nadal and a maiden run through qualifying to become the youngest man to take his place in an Australian Open main draw.

“He just killed me, so I would say he's good,” Goffin offered with a smile at the time. “He qualified for his first Grand Slam. He's under 18. He's hitting the ball unbelievable.

“So I don't know if he's playing like tonight every day, every match, but it was a huge performance.”

It soon became apparent this showing was not an aberration with Goffin not alone in being on the receiving end of a huge performance from the Spaniard in the ensuing 15 months.

Now considered a strong shot at lifting his first major trophy in Paris next month, the 19-year-old’s star has risen astronomically since he contested his second Roland-Garros qualifying a year ago.

Carlos Alcaraz, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Andre Ferreira/FFT

With back-to-back Grand Slam main draw appearances secured on the terre battue last May, Alcaraz advanced to the third round of a major for the first time.

It marked the last time he has needed to line up in qualifying at a major since.

With a bulked up frame and a more developed game since his watershed 2021, Alcaraz has already racked up a tour-leading four titles this season – ATP 500s in Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona and Masters 1000 trophies in Miami and Madrid.

Victories over Nadal, world No.1 Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev in succession to capture the title in his nation’s capital only cemented the teenager’s credentials as a leading contender for Paris.

Not that he was letting it go to his head.

“I think that I have to improve everything still,” Alcaraz said.

“I have always said that you can improve everything. You never reach a limit.

“Look at Rafa, Djokovic, Federer, all of them improve and they have things to improve.

“That's why they are so good, and that's why they are so much time up there, because they don't stop. They keep on working and improving.”

It’s a daunting outlook for prospective opponents.

Four-time Roland-Garros champion Justine Henin only last week told Belgian newspaper Sudinfo that Alcaraz was “more complete” than Nadal, Federer or Djokovic, while his beaten opponent from the Madrid final, Zverev, had no doubt where he currently stood.

“He's a great player. He's the best in the world right now,” Zverev said.

Naomi Osaka knows what it’s like to have had her name bandied about as one of the most exciting new talents, a hype that only grew with four Grand Slam triumphs.

She too found the Alcaraz ascent compelling viewing.

“I feel like he’s genuinely made everyone excited about the ATP and I haven’t seen that in a very long time,” Osaka told reporters in Madrid.

Djokovic and Nadal were quick to warn against drawing parallels too soon, however, so as not to suffocate the teenager with unfair expectations.

“I generally don't like comparisons. I think everyone is authentic, everyone is special,” Djokovic said.

“He definitely is special. I mean, already he's breaking a lot of records as a teenager, you know, winning two Masters events this year, a couple of 500s. So far he's the best player in the world, no question, this year…

“The way he was dealing with the pressure, I mean, in our match few days ago, how calm he was all the way ’til the [end], was impressive.”

Carlos Alcaraz / Miami 2022©Ray Giubilo / FFT

Nadal insisted it was crucial to let Alcaraz “enjoy his personal career” but offered high praise in assessing what made his young compatriot so promising.

“Carlos plays a lot with adrenaline, with momentum,” Nadal said. “When adrenaline goes up, he's practically unstoppable, but then in some moments he commits errors, but it's logical because he plays with a lot of risk.

“It's his way of playing, and in that sense I think he has the level to be able to [beat] anyone [in] the world.”

Djokovic and Nadal can expect to field even more questions on their so-called heir apparent should he cap a remarkable 12 months to rise from Roland-Garros qualifying to a Grand Slam champion next month.