The Australian Open qualifiers came to an end on Wednesday, and arguably the most intriguing name to come out of them was that of Carlos Alcaraz.
There were several stars like Bernard Tomic, Viktor Troicki, Tsvetsana Pironkova, and Sara Errani that also made it to the main draw of the year's first Slam. However, it was the 17-year-old Alcaraz that grabbed most of the headlines.
The Spaniard defeated Filip Horansky, Evgeny Karlovskiy and second seed Hugo Dellien to become the first player to be born in 2003 (or later) to make the main draw of a men's singles Grand Slam event.
Although a relatively unknown entity in other parts of the world, Carlos Alcaraz has long been touted as the can't-miss prodigy of Spanish tennis. And he has certainly lived up to that billing over the last couple of years.
The meteoric rise of Carlos Alcaraz in 2020
Carlos Alcaraz turned heads at the start of the year in Rio de Janeiro, as he became the youngest player in the 11-year history of the event category to appear in the main draw of an ATP 500 tournament. Then just 16, Alcaraz defeated fellow countryman Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the opening round to become the first player born in 2003 (or later) to win an ATP tour level match.
The hype train picked up for the Spaniard following his exploits in Rio, with many in Spain nicknaming him 'Baby Rafael Nadal'. And Alcaraz didn't disappoint, as he went on to have a hugely successful year on the ATP Challenger circuit.
In the space of less than 12 months, the 17-year-old has won five titles - three at the Challenger level and two at the ITF level. He has also finished runner-up at two other events, amassed two wins over top 100 opposition, and registered an impressive 42-7 win-loss ratio (84%).
During this period, Carlos Alcaraz has jumped a whopping 365 spots in the ATP rankings. He started 2020 at World No. 490 and ended it at World No. 135 (he is now ranked 141st in the world).
Many in Spain who have followed Carlos Alcaraz through the juniors claim that his rise was inevitable. However, few could have predicted the speed of his ascent on the Challenger and ITF tours, let alone qualification to his first Grand Slam main draw at the age of 17 - achievements that are comparable to a certain 20-time Slam champion.
Is Carlos Alcaraz the 'new Rafael Nadal'?
Comparisons with Rafael Nadal are perhaps inevitable for any rising tennis talent in Spain, given the World No. 2's success not just throughout his career but also during his teenage years.
Nadal reached his first Challenger final in 2003, at the age of 16 - one day before the birth of Carlos Alcaraz. By the age of 17 Nadal had broken through into the top 50, and within two years of that he was on the brink of reaching the top 5 and winning the first of his 20 Grand Slam titles.
Rafael Nadal's progression through the ranks as a teenager was unreal, and hasn't been rivalled by anyone in his generation. But he finally seems to have found a successor in the next generation, and that too from his own country.
Carlos Alcaraz's rise is an indicator of not only his phenomenal talent, but also his mental strength at a relatively young age - much like Rafael Nadal. That said, their playing styles are fairly different.
Unlike the 20-time Grand Slam champion, Alcaraz's teenage successes have come not just on clay, but on hardcourts as well. The 17-year-old has a speedy, aggressive baseline game but he backs his excellent movement with all-court efficiency, often moving to the net to finish points early.
Alcaraz's coach Juan Carlos Ferrero recently claimed that while comparisons with Nadal are natural, his ward's game is more similar to that of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
"Of course, the comparison is going to be there because for people here in Spain, it’s been a long time that we haven’t had anyone at the age of 16 or 17 [playing] this kind of level," said Ferrero. "If I have to say someone that I can compare him to, it’s the game of Novak Djokovic or maybe Roger Federer. They like to be aggressive from the baseline and they can go to the net to finish the point."
Toni Nadal, the former coach and uncle of Rafa, also recently anointed Carlos Alcaraz as the natural successor of his nephew at the summit of Spanish tennis. Toni did warn, however, that Alcaraz might find it difficult to deal with the pressure of comparisons.
The debate about the parallels between Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz will likely rage on for a long time, despite their difference in playing styles. But what is almost certain is that Alcaraz is well-equipped to follow in his idol's footsteps, and that he all the makings of a future Grand Slam winner.
Tennis fans would be hoping that Carlos Alcaraz meets the early expectations, and doesn't get bogged down by them the way some prodigious talents have done in the past. But for now, all eyes will be firmly on the teenager when he makes his Grand Slam debut in Melbourne.Published 14 Jan 2021, 15:45 IST