Paris At 19, Carlos Alcaraz is considered the next big thing in tennis. For Alexander Zverev, this may mean having another exceptional player in front of him in the future. The French Open should show whether the Spaniard has already rushed him.
Their encounter lasted just 62 minutes. Then his opponent was already clenching his fists, while Alexander Zverev crept to the net after a double fault to congratulate him over the red sand. He didn’t do it in resentment. His game had certainly been flawed, but his opponent with strength and brains that day was on a different level. Zverev obviously knew how to classify that. So he only said appreciatively “well done” to Carlos Alcaraz during the handshake. With 3: 6 and 1: 6 Zverev lost the final of the Masters in Madrid.
For Alcaraz, this tournament victory two weeks ago, in which he also beat industry kings Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the previous rounds, was the preliminary highlight of an outstanding season. Most recently, he also won the Masters in Miami and the prestigious clay court tournament in Barcelona, climbing up to sixth place in the world rankings. There isn’t a name that has been written and talked about more in men’s tennis in the past few weeks. Alcaraz, just 19 years old, with a youthful face and muscular body, is the next big thing in tennis, everyone agrees. He is one of the favorites for the upcoming French Open – Zverev, who was in the semi-finals in Paris last year, is this time under “Best of the rest” with the organizer.
However, Zverev should be able to understand what is currently affecting the young Spaniard. He was only a year older than Alcaraz today in 2017 when he also won his first major tournaments ahead of the French Open. At that time, he was also carried on the shoulders of the tennis world, assuring him that he would be number one and win tons of Grand Slam titles. Zverev is now a middle-aged 25-year-old and has certainly won great victories – just not in the Grand Slams, the benchmark in tennis for the really big careers. On the one hand, because the native of Hamburg often lacks the necessary consistency, on the other hand, because Nadal, soon to be 36, and Djokovic, 34, despite their advanced tennis age, are still unavoidable.
The changing of the guard of the so-called “Big Three” has become a game of patience for the generation around Zverev, often marketed as “NextGen” – even if only Nadal and Djokovic remained from the trio in sporting terms. After a long injury break, Roger Federer is only concerned with one last goodbye on the tour, his success story should now be over at the age of 40. He is not at the French Open. Nadal and Djokovic, on the other hand, continue to dominate, together they have won 13 of the past 15 Grand Slam tournaments. Only Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev squeezed into this series of winners at the US Open 2020 and 2021.
Now, with Alcaraz, another exceptional player appears, behind whom Zverev has to queue – and who, unlike Nadal and Djokovic, has the time on his side. “This Center Court has belonged to Nadal for 15 years, for the next 15 years it will probably belong to Alcaraz,” said Zverev on the pitch after his defeat in Madrid. Of course, that is very far into the future – especially since Alcaraz has only known the high phases of a sportsman’s life so far.
For his age, he is still remarkably far, further than Zverev back then: he rarely shows nerves, on the court he also looks like a disciplined, polite piano student. Chopped rackets or heated discussions with referees are hardly imaginable for him – categories in which Zverev has stood out for years, only that this does not bring him forward either athletically or in his reputation. And then Alcaraz hammered the felt ball across the field almost flawlessly at 120 kilometers per hour, whether forehand or backhand, but also interspersed perfect stop balls.
“He’s not a child, he’s a monster,” was the headline in the Catalan newspaper “La Vanguardia” about Alcaraz. Not necessarily the most flattering description. For his opponents, it should sometimes actually feel like that.
Alcaraz is now in a new role at the French Open: he no longer travels to the tournament as an underdog, he has to meet expectations – on a very big stage. Djokovic recently even called Alcaraz “the currently best player in the world”, which Zverev did. More attention is hardly possible. A prospective top player must also be able to deal with this. Zverev also had to learn that. Defending champion Djokovic is once again the top favorite at the French Open after his Masters victory in Rome last week. What is possible for Zverev may become apparent from the quarter-finals: There could be another meeting with Alcaraz.
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