‘Cold winners’: The Alcaraz shot tipped to break down the ‘big three’

It’s half Rafael Nadal’s lifetime ago since the legendary Spaniard set the tennis world alight, erupting on the tour in 2005 with the first of his 13 major titles on the red Roland Garros clay.

Nadal, then 19, famously won in Paris at his first attempt, but that stunning breakthrough followed titles won in Brazil, Mexico, Miami, Monaco, Barcelona and Rome.

Now all the talk is on and about another Spaniard who could follow Nadal’s path by winning Roland Garros as a teenager.

You might not have heard much about Carlos Alcaraz yet, but you soon will. Hailing from Murcia, Spain, the fresh-faced assassin has recently won Madrid, Barcelona and Miami to surge into the top 10. At least one bookmaker has Alcaraz as equal favourite in Paris alongside Novak Djokovic, bearing in mind yet another injury cloud hovers over Nadal.

The big picture

It appears inevitable that the rapid rise of Alcaraz will play a role in the dismantling or end of ‘the big three’ of men’s tennis – Nadal, Djokovic, and Roger Federer.

While men’s tennis has been crying out for a ready-made replacement, or simply a ‘top-up’ – Alcaraz’s impact could be either sharp and immediate, gradual or, most likely, a combination of the two.

With 40-year-old Federer’s next step uncertain, and Djokovic and Nadal into their mid-30s, Alcaraz is a disruptor, and one the game’s elite players have seen coming. While other players have hovered with intent and broken down the walls steadily (Daniil Medevedev’s US Open title was no small matter), Alcaraz could represent significant evolution in tennis.

Former Australian doubles champion Paul McNamee likens the current shift to the impact Ivan Lendl had in the 1980s when another multiple French Open champion, Bjorn Borg, had retired.

Alcaraz is arguably moving the game forward a notch, McNamee said, acutely aware that Nadal may not be completely fit in Paris, hampered by a chronic foot injury which also clouded his Australian Open lead-up, .

It’s not Rafa in his prime, but it’s a little bit [like] what Lendl did to Borg. The game evolved when Borg and [Guillermo] Vilas brought in heavy top spin and then Lendl had similar top spin but actually had more power, McNamee said.

I’m not saying historically that he [Lendl] is a better player than all of those, but he actually moved the game forward because he added power to the topspin.

His forehand was quite lethal. It was a bigger shot than Borg had, even though Borg had a great forehand, Lendl’s was evolved a little bit. He added more power.

What does Alcaraz’s game look like?

Alcaraz enjoyed his first career win over Nadal earlier this month in Madrid before following it with victory over Djokovic and destroying Germany’s Alexander Zverev in the final. Suddenly, everyone sat up and took notice.

Nadal’s piercing, topspin-laden forehand is legendary, taking him to a record number of grand slam titles (21) and brutal dominance on clay.

I don’t actually think his [Alcatraz’s] forehand is as good as Nadal’s. I do not. However, his backhand is so much better, says McNamee.

His backhand was so fast, so heavy, whereas Rafa’s backhand is a traditional topspin backhand with shape. Alcaraz just rips his backhand flat, and he just hits cold winners across court, just cold winners. A bit like Djokovic, OK, but he’s also got a very good forehand.

Thus McNamee can safely anticipate Alcaraz’s impact.

What Alcaraz seems to be doing is saying ‘well, you might have the best shot, but mine’s almost as good and, in fact, my backhand . . . the other one is way better. ’

So I’m going to overwhelm you with the combination of the two, which no one had been able to do [in men’s tennis] pre-Alcaraz.

That’s why I’m seeing the slight evolution of the game again, which comes along every generation.

Arguably, Alcaraz represents a new form of Djokovic, McNamee says.

Djokovic is similar in a way because he’s got the great backhand – much better than Nadal’s – and that’s why he [Djokovic] has done so well against him, especially on hardcourt.

To be honest he [Alcaraz] plays more like Djokovic than he does like Nadal.

Inevitable comparisons

Nadal’s and Alcaraz’s birthdays are only weeks apart and Nadal’s memorable opening major at Roland Garros in 2005 happened shortly after he turned 19. Therefore, comparisons between the two are certain.

Nadal has expressed some frustration when quizzed consistently about Alcaraz’s career trajectory.

If he’s able to win 25 grand slams, it’s going to be amazing for him and for our country, and I’ll be happy for him, said the tennis legend.

But let him enjoy his personal career, Nadal warned. Don’t put extra pressure on him.

McNamee believes that, ironically, Alcaraz’s nationality will assist him. Given Nadal’s status and feats, the teen won’t be pressured in the same way as players seeking to end a drought for their nation.

He [Alcaraz] has got the ‘cover’ of Nadal in the sense that ‘well, you’re great, but you’re still not Nadal yet’, said McNamee.

I think that, therefore, he has a little bit of clear air [because of the Nadal shadow]. I know he’s not getting any right now, but in time he’ll get some clean air because you can’t honestly compare another Spaniard to Nadal . . . yet.

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