It felt apt that Carlos Alcaraz’s victory over Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Open – which seemed like a seminal moment in the passing of power – was watched by Spain’s King Felipe VI.
While Nadal is not prepared to abdicate from his ‘King of Clay’ throne, Alcaraz’s first victory over one of his childhood idols – and subsequent lifting of the Madrid title – was the strongest sign yet the 19-year-old Spaniard is ready to rule the men’s game.
Alcaraz, long touted as a future Grand Slam champion after being identified as a potential superstar aged 11, has dominated the ATP Tour in recent weeks.
The next step is transferring this form into a Grand Slam and the best-of-five sets format, with the first opportunity coming at the French Open, which starts on Sunday.
If Alcaraz was to win at Roland Garros – where 35-year-old Nadal has been almost unbeatable over the past two decades – then the leap from tennis sensation to mainstream recognition would be complete.
Fellow players and pundits have tipped him to do just that, while bookmakers have made him one of the favourites alongside 13-time winner Nadal – who is trying to manage a foot injury – and defending champion Novak Djokovic.
So just who is this youngster once branded ‘a piece of spaghetti’ who has got the tennis world salivating? And will he deliver?
‘Best player in the world right now’
Winning this month’s Madrid Open – the most prestigious tournament in his homeland – was Alcaraz’s fourth title of 2022. No other man has won as many.
A tally of 28 match wins this year was also unparalleled going into the Italian Open, which Alcaraz skipped to preserve himself for Roland Garros.
In May 2021, he was ranked 120th in the world. A year later, he is sixth.
“People are going to think that I’m one of the favourites to win Roland Garros,” Alcaraz said after he thrashed defending champion Alexander Zverev to win the Madrid title.
“I don’t have it as tension, I have it as a motivation.”
Djokovic thinks there is “no doubt” Alcaraz can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires on 5 June, while Zverev labelled the teenager the “best player in the world right now”.
After losing to Alcaraz in Madrid, Nadal conceded it was the start of the “handover”.
“If it’s today or not, we will see it in the next months,” the 21-time Grand Slam champion added.
Alcaraz’s best performance at a Grand Slam so far has been reaching the US Open quarter-finals last year and many expect the sixth seed to match that run, if not better it, at Roland Garros.
Clay is the surface on which he grew up playing in Spain and four of his five ATP titles have come on the red dirt.
Winning a major title this year is Alcaraz’s next goal and, to help him achieve it, he can count on guidance from a man who has been there and done it – coach Juan Carlos Ferrero.
“The fact that I have lived all these situations makes me realise better about how he feels and how to manage those situations,” the Spanish former world number one and 2003 French Open champion told BBC Sport.
“Winning a Grand Slam is really hard. It is competing against the best in their peaks in pretty long matches.
“We need to keep working, keep focus on our work and let all the noise happening around not affect him.
“As I used to say to him: he hasn’t matched the achievements of anyone yet.”
How a ‘piece of spaghetti’ has become the newest star
Alcaraz’s sharp rise in a stunning year has been down to his discipline and commitment on and off court.
Particular focus has been put on improving shot selection and building a body that can cope with the physical demands placed upon the world’s best players.
“We worked a lot on his fitness because before, as I joke sometimes, he was like a piece of spaghetti,” said Ferrero.
“We also work on all strokes and make special emphasis on his shot selection. He has a lot of talent and needs to order all the options he has while hitting.
“Being orderly off the court has been important to work on too. To be one of the best, you need also to make this effort.”
In Madrid, Alcaraz beat three of the players ranked inside the world’s top four. No player had achieved that at a Masters 1000 event since Argentina’s David Nalbandian in 2007.
Nadal was the first to fall in the quarter-finals before 20-time major winner Djokovic and Olympic champion Zverev were also despatched.
Alcaraz’s performance in a one-sided win against Germany’s Zverev was described by 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova as “a downright beating”.
“He has got no weaknesses. I don’t know what I’d do if I was playing him,” said Navratilova, who was a courtside analyst in Madrid for Amazon Prime.
Zverev looked stunned by the manner of his destruction, while Greek world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas said he has been “inspired a lot” by Alcaraz’s success.
As leading members of the ‘Next Gen’ group – the wave of early 20-somethings aiming to fill the void soon to be left by Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer – Zverev and Tsitsipas fully realise the younger Alcaraz is now another major obstacle in their quest for Grand Slam titles.
“I really do think he has leapfrogged them [the Next Gen players], he is ahead of them now,” said Annabel Croft, the former British number one who is also an analyst for Amazon Prime.
“They are going to be chasing him and trying to figure out ways to bring their level up. He is sending shockwaves through the locker room.”
A ‘special talent’ with lofty aspirations
While he has high aspirations, there is nothing cocky about Alcaraz.
Born and raised in El Palmar, a town outside Murcia in southern Spain, he typifies the characteristics of the people from a traditionally agricultural region heavily reliant on the export of fruit and vegetables.
Hardworking and determined, but enjoying the moments that life throws up.
Recently he was invited on to El Hormiguero – a popular chat show on Spanish television – and celebrated with Real Madrid’s footballers on the Bernabeu pitch after they clinched another La Liga title.
That does not distract him from the day job. Since Alcaraz was 15, the hard work has been put in with Ferrero at his academy about an hour’s drive from Alcaraz’s home.
Ferrero was persuaded by Alcaraz’s agent Albert Molina, who spotted the youngster aged 11 and convinced international sports agency IMG to manage him a year later, to commit to what he saw as a long-term project that can reap rich rewards for everyone.
“He came to play some tournaments that we used to arrange at the academy,” Ferrero said.
“At that moment he already had a great level and something different. He was surprisingly weak physically and hadn’t any order while playing.
“But his forehand was already something special, I truly could see a great difference with others. He already showed pretty special talents.”
The constant comparisons between Alcaraz and Nadal are already wearing thin for some people, with both players pleading for the younger Spaniard to be given his own recognition.
“I know that there will never be another like Rafa in history. I am Carlos,” Alcaraz said last year.
While their physical endurance is similar, Alcaraz plays closer to the baseline than Nadal, likes to come forward more and regularly uses the drop shot as a potent weapon.
But Alcaraz does possess the same important attribute as Nadal in his quest for greatness: an insatiable appetite for self-improvement.
“I think that I have to improve everything still. I have always said that you can improve everything. You never reach a limit,” he said.
“Look at Rafa, Djokovic, [Roger] 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 [of the] time up there, because they don’t stop. They keep on working and improving.
“That’s what I want to do. I want to keep on progressing. I have really good shots. I don’t say that I don’t have them, but I know that I can improve them and they can be even better.”