No Escape From Alcaraz
For the first few months of Carlos Alcaraz’s life, the men’s tennis world was formless and empty. No fewer than four different players were No. 1 in the world in the first nine months of baby Carlito’s life. In that time, the old warhorse Andre Agassi made it back to the top for the final time. The feisty Australian Lleyton Hewitt wrestled away the top spot for a few weeks. The Great American Serving Machine Andy Roddick made his way to No. 1 and flashed a boundless future.
And the fourth No. 1 player was a Spaniard, Juan Carlos Ferrero, who made it to the top for eight glorious weeks in late 2003 in what he undoubtedly hoped would be just the beginning of an extraordinary tennis life.
Little did Juan Carlos Ferrero know that his extraordinary tennis life was, at that moment, impatiently tossing around in a crib in a small Spanish village called El Palmar.
It’s worth spending a couple more minutes talking about just how chaotic men’s tennis was in those days, before Roger Federer brought order to the universe. For eight years, from 1996 to 2004, TWELVE different men spent at least one week at No. 1.
Australian Patrick Rafter spent exactly one week at No. 1 — the week of July 26, 1999. Spain’s Carlos Moya became the first Spaniard to reach No. 1 — he was there for two weeks total — and you can now see him in the Rafa Nadal coaching box.
Austrian Thomas Muster spent six weeks at No. 1; he was called “The King of Clay” before Nadal was permanently granted the crown.
Chilean Marcelo Rios and Russian Yevegeny Kafelnikov also spent six weeks at the top. Rios was a mercurial player with both genius and catastrophe raging inside him. There were days he was unbeatable, but he is still the only men’s player to reach No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam title (he only once made it past the Grand Slam quarterfinals — that was 1999, when he lost to Petr Korda in the Australian Open final). Ten years after Rios’ short stand at the top of the world, a Chilean journalist named Nelson Flores wrote a book about him called El Extraño del Pelo Largo — “The Strange Man With the Long Hair.”
As for Kafelnikov, I loved his rat-tat-tat, high-energy game, but even more than that, I loved the exchange he had with the American press as he tried to explain why he was nicknamed after an assault rifle.
“You have heard of the Kalashnikov, yes,” he asked the press, and some of us stared blankly at him, as we seemed unaware that the K in AK-47 stands for its inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov … which obviously sounds like Kafelnikov.
“I do not know what they teach in American schools,” Kafelnikov said.
Marat Safin became the first Russian man to get to No. 1, a few years before his younger sister, Dinara Safina, became the second Russian woman to reach the top spot (after Maria Sharapova). Marat was No. 1 for nine weeks. Dinara was on top for 26.
The others at No. 1 in the pre-Federer world included the aforementioned Agassi, Hewitt, Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero, plus the wonderful Brazilian clay-court maestro Gustavo Kuerten and the inescapable Pete Sampras, who reached No. 1 on 11 different occasions for a total of 286 weeks, a record upon his retirement.
Then came Roger. And the chaos was over.
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Fed took the No. 1 spot on February 2, 2004, and held it for the next four and a half years. But even more to the point, he ended the men’s tennis multiverse of madness. He raised the very standards of tennis so high that only the truest of believers even dared try to reach the pinnacle. Four different players were No. 1 in Carlos Alcaraz’s formative months. And four different players held the top spot for the next 18 years.
Novak Djokovic (369 weeks and counting)
Roger Federer (310 weeks)
Rafael Nadal (209 weeks)
Andy Murray (41 weeks)
This is the world that Carlos Alcaraz grew up knowing. He has no memories whatsoever of that old world, when even the very best tennis players had weaknesses in their games. He was born inside the Matrix. He grew up idolizing Rafa, with his relentless spirit and ferocious topspin forehand. He grew up watching Roger, with his dancer’s balance and surgeon’s touch and perfect serve. He grew up marveling at the way Andy could hit such perfect lobs that his opponent would just stare at the ground in defeat. He grew up admiring Novak and the way he could run down any ball and send back even the hardest serves with something extra, as if turning around lasers with a mirror.
He watched. He learned.
Welcome to the brave new world of Carlos Alcaraz.
We all know that, sooner or later, the Big Four will have to give up the stage. They’ve been particularly stubborn about that: Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have won 16 of the last 18 grand slams. But even they are not immune to the passage of time. It will end.
The question: How?
That is to say, will they simply fade away, leaving behind a muddled mess of contenders? This is what happened in golf when Tiger Woods spent the last of his extraordinary 683 weeks at No. 1*. A collection of Dustins and Justins and Jordans -- with the occasional Rory and Brooksie and Scottie and Rahm — have been exchanging the No. 1 spot for years, but each of them seems only to be leasing it. None of them has owned it.
*That’s THIRTEEN YEARS at No. 1 for Tiger — nobody in golf or tennis even comes close.
Most weeks at No. 1:
Men’s golf: Tiger Woods, 683 weeks
Women’s golf: Lorena Ochoa, 158 weeks
Men’s tennis: Novak Djokovic, 369 weeks
Women’s tennis: Steffi Graf, 377 weeks
Is that what will happen in tennis when the years finally catch up to Djokovic and Nadal? For a long time, that’s how it looked. There is no shortage of supremely talented contenders around the world who might be ready for their closeups. Austria’s Dominic Thiem, for example, always seemed to have a big-enough game with lots of power and speed to burn. Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas has the look, with his Bjorn Borg hair and striking one-handed backhand. When Australia’s Nick Kyrgios is locked in, he can overpower anyone, though it’s usually just a matter of time before his mind goes walkabout and he tries some between-the-legs shot for no reason at all.
Russian Daniil Medvedev blends cheekiness, heart and a never-miss backboard rhythm, and he was the one who finally ended that Big Four’s 18-year streak of being No.1. Medvedev took the top spot for three precious weeks in March before needing hernia surgery and before the country of his birth went to war, which somehow got him banned from Wimbledon.
There are others, so many others — Alexander Zverev and Andrei Rublev and Casper Ruud and Matteo Berretini and some promising kids like Jannik Sinner and Felix Auger-Aliassime and Holger Rune and Lorenzo Musetti and maybe even one of the young Americans like Seb Korda or Jenson Brooksby. It’s generally pretty hard to choose one over another, but, hey, someone has to be No. 1.
Thing is, there was always a different possibility for how the Big Four Era would end.
And that is that somebody would come along and end it.
When you watch Carlos Alcaraz play, you realize: He’s the one to end it. Alcaraz just won in Madrid — becoming the first player to ever beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back on clay — and this barely more than a month after he beat three top 10 players to win the title on the hard courts in Miami.
He is, in some ways, exactly what you’d expect a phenom to be — he crushes the ball on both forehands and backhands, he chases down everything, he might be the fastest player in the world right now, and he plays with a crackling energy that’s all but impossible for opponents to match.
But in other ways, he’s different from what you’d expect. He might already have the best dropshot in tennis, and he might already have the best topspin lob in tennis, and he’s breathtakingly good at the net. These are often older player skills; it’s supposed to take years and experience to develop them. How has the 19-year-old Alcaraz, at an age when he’s supposed to be figuring things out, found the time to get so good at those things?
And so what you have with Alcaraz is a young-old player, or an old-young player; he combines the youthful exuberance of a kid living his dream with the deadly awareness of a veteran player who knows exactly what shot to hit to put an opponent away.
Juan Carlos Ferrero — No. 1 when Alcaraz was a baby and now his coach — has been warning everyone that Alcaraz’s time was coming. When Ferrero first started working with a 15-year-old Alcaraz, he saw the brilliance (you couldn’t miss the brilliance) but he also saw a temperamental kid who would lose the thread, stop working, fall apart. He also saw a kid who was already having to deal with all the pressures of being called the next Rafa.
So, he tried to slow Alcaraz down. Set relatively modest goals. Push him to love the journey and not worry so much about the results. All that coaching stuff. And sure enough, Alcaraz began doing incredible things — youngest player ever to win a match in Madrid, youngest player to hit the Top 100, youngest player in the Open Era to reach the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open.
And, Ferrero kept telling people, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Now we’re seeing it. During the week, we watched Alcaraz outlast Rafael Nadal and outplay Novak Djokovic, two seemingly impossible things even now. And on Sunday, Alcaraz simply dismantled one of those No. 1 contenders, Madrid defending champion Alexander Zverev — Alcaraz didn’t just win 6-3, 6-1, he outgunned, outmanned, outthought and outplanned Zverev. It was like Zverev was simply playing an older version of this game, like he was a flip phone trying to outdo an iPhone.
In 1974, a rock journalist named Jon Landau watched a concert at Harvard Square Theater and wrote, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
That’s how I feel now watching Carlos Alcaraz play. There has been a bit of sadness among many tennis fans because we all know that the greatest era in the sport’s history is coming to an end. But I’m not sure that era is ending. I saw tennis’ future and its name is Carlos Alcaraz. He just might be Fed, Rafa, Novak and Andy all rolled into one.