“When you see a new car, always looks better. When you see a new phone, always looks better than the old one. It’s something that it’s normal in this life….all the new things are much more interesting than older things,” Rafael Nadal said before the start of the Rome Masters this month, the last ATP 1000 event before the tennis caravan headed to Paris for the French Open, which starts 22 May.
Nadal was the shiny new thing once, about 18 years ago. But what he was referring to here is another teenage phenomenon, also from Spain, named Carlos Alcaraz Garfia. All bright smiles and dazzling play, the 19-year-old has taken the tennis world by storm. Experts and fans are fawning over him. In just a few weeks, Alcaraz has emerged as a fully formed champion. He has been compared to Roger Federer (Alcaraz’s boyhood hero), Rafael Nadal (intensity), Andre Agassi (baseline aggression) and Novak Djokovic (close-cropped hair, laser focus). What do we talk about? The whip of the forehand? The cheeky drop shots? The wicked kick serves? The variety? The audacity?
Alcaraz made his breakthrough this spring. He has claimed 28 wins this season and has a tour-leading four titles, including two ATP 1000 titles. He is the youngest player to win the Masters events in Miami and Madrid. In February, he entered the top 20 of men’s tennis, the youngest to do so since 1993. Two months later, he broke into the top 10, becoming the youngest to do so since Nadal in 2005. While Alcaraz is building an impressive resume, two days at Madrid’s La Caja Májica stadium (literally, The Magic Box)—6-7 May—sealed his place as the next big thing in the sport. Or, as Madrid finalist Alexander Zverev described him, the “best player in the world right now”.
Just a day after he turned 19, Alcaraz slayed Nadal 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 in the Madrid quarter-finals. He then followed it up by out-tussling Djokovic 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, in an intense (51 winners to Djokovic’s 24), high-quality encounter in the semi-finals. That made him the youngest player to beat both Nadal and Djokovic and the first to do so at a clay-court event. The win over Djokovic also made him the youngest to beat a World No.1 since Nadal beat Federer in Miami in 2004.
It’s not like we didn’t know Alcaraz was coming. Last year, at the US Open, he gave notice that he was armed for the big league when he knocked out Stefanos Tsitsipas. But like a snazzy new sports car—his parents won’t let him have one just yet—Alcaraz has zoomed into view, zero to 60 in three seconds. He has jumped from World No.120 to No.6 in one year.
His meteoric rise has spiced things up ahead of the French Open. Alcaraz’s coach, former French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, believes the teenager is inherently aggressive, like Federer. Being a Spaniard, he has a game and physicality naturally attuned to clay and is looking to make some noise at Roland Garros.
Alcaraz is the talk of the town but Paris remains Nadal’s kingdom. As has been the case since his debut in 2005, Nadal enters the French Open as the favourite—even though he has lost steam since starting 2022 with 20 wins on the trot, including the Australian Open, where he clinched a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title. Even though, for only the second time in his career, he heads to Paris with no clay titles under his belt. Even though he spent six weeks on the sidelines due to a rib injury; even though the foot injury continues to flare up every now and then, like it did against Denis Shapovalov at the Rome Masters on 12 May.
“I am not injured,” Nadal, who will turn 36 during the French Open fortnight, said after losing 6-1, 5-7, 2-6 to Shapovalov in Rome. “Unfortunately, my day-by-day is difficult, honestly…it’s difficult for me to accept the situation sometimes.” He compared his body to an “old machine” that takes time to rev up every now and again.
But the terre battue (beaten earth) of Roland Garros is almost like an elixir for the Spaniard. He has staged many career rebirths at the arena, grinding out wins and hoisting the trophy an incredible 13 times. No one has quite ruled a Grand Slam like Nadal has the French Open. And battered body or not, the Spaniard made it clear that reclaiming the throne is the goal.
The crown, for now, belongs to World No.1 Djokovic, who has had a quiet year, on the court that is. The controversial Serb has participated in only five tournaments so far. The relatively ordinary win-loss record of 12-4 is offset by the fact that the 34-year-old won the Rome Masters, his record 38th Masters title, and might be peaking at the right time.
In 2021, he became the first player to beat Nadal twice at the French Open when he got the better of the Spaniard in a high-octane semi-final clash. Though he doesn’t have a lot of matches under his belt, the chip on his shoulder has become heavier this season. The French Open will be Djokovic’s first major of 2022, as he was thrown out of the Australian Open due to his controversial covid-19 vaccination stance. A wounded Djokovic is looking to wrest back control in the race for the most number of Grand Slam titles. He’s currently on 20, along with Federer, one behind Nadal.
Djokovic, who became the first men’s player in the Modern Era (post-1968) to win a career Grand Slam twice by winning the 2021 French Open, has the weapons and the cunning to win it again. He has become sharper with every clay event he has played in the run-up to Paris and is still the most credible threat to Nadal’s reign.
Before Alcaraz jumped the queue, Tsitsipas and Zverev made up the next rung of contenders. The Greek came within a set of winning the French Open last year but saw his two-set lead ground to dust by Djokovic in the final. After carrying the scars of that loss through the end of last season, the 23-year-old has steadied the ship somewhat on his favourite surface, clay. He defended the title this April in Monte Carlo and reached the final in Rome. But Tsitsipas, who has been regularly pulled up for on-court coaching, has some growing up to do on the biggest stage.
Zverev and Tsitsipas’ career trajectories are proof that success on the Tour doesn’t automatically translate into Grand Slam glory. Apprenticeship in men’s tennis, in the era of the Big 3, has been a draining and frustrating affair. Alcaraz has enjoyed a spurt in the last few weeks but taking on heavyweights like Nadal and Djokovic over five sets, which will give them enough time to find solutions to his slings, will be a new challenge altogether.
At 19, he’s the same age as Nadal was when he won his first French Open. Will Alcaraz, who has created a buzz similar to Nadal in 2005, complete the historical symmetry? Or will the legends hold out a little longer? The French Open is set for a tantalising showdown between the new and the old.
Świątek in Pole position
After Australian Open champion Ashleigh Barty retired in dramatic fashion, at the age of 25, in March, it looked like the women’s tour would once again struggle to find a leader. But Iga Świątek, who stepped in as World No.1 after Barty’s departure, has made the transition look almost seamless.
The 20-year-old from Poland, the first from her country to become a World No.1 in singles, has been on a hot streak. She will go into the French Open with 28 straight wins, 42 out of 43 sets, and five titles under her belt. Świątek had emerged from relative obscurity to win the 2020 French Open. The athletic youngster, with a big wingspan, had slapped winners off both wings to hurtle to a historic Grand Slam triumph without dropping a set.
This time she returns to the French Open as the sport’s leading lady. While Świątek has the run of form, very few Grand Slams in recent times have followed an expected script in the women’s game. There are dangers, and potential champions, lurking in every corner. Last year, Barbora Krejčíková, a doubles star, had scored her first singles Slam at the French Open. Currently ranked No.2 in the world, the player from Czech Republic will once again be a contender for the title.
Four-time major champion Naomi Osaka is still trying to tease out the nuances of clay. The Japanese, who withdrew from the tournament last year after refusing to attend the mandatory post-match conferences, is seemingly in a much better head space. She admitted she had watched videos of Nadal, and lately of Alcaraz, to try and demystify the surface. Osaka, 24, has never gone past the third round at Roland Garros but looks determined to give a better account of herself. The sheer depth of talent in women’s tennis, however, means it is still anybody’s game.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.