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What just happened? Carlos Alcaraz in Madrid

By Vanessa Taylor and Russell Boxshall

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Carlos Alcaraz had a remarkable week in Madrid even by the teenager’s lofty standards this year.

His year started at the Australian Open, where Matteo Berrettini beat him in the third round in a tight five-setter, 6-2 7-6(3) 4-6 2-6 7-6(10).

Since then Alcaraz has won four titles, adding to his first title last year, making him the sixth male player in the Open Era to win his first five career finals.

The other five players to achieve this feat were Ernests Gulbis, Martin Klizan, Thomas Enqvist, Andrei Medvedev and Sjeng Schalken.

But Alcaraz went one better by being the only player to win his first five finals in straight sets.

Last month he won his first Masters 1000 event at the Miami Open, defeating Casper Ruud 7-6 6-4.

Carlos Alcaraz winning Miami. Photo: AP

At the Mutua Madrid Open, he also became the first ever player to beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in successive clay court matches. It’s true that Nadal was in just his third match back after six weeks healing a stress fractured rib and that Djokovic had yet to win a title since coming back from three months off the tour.

But Alcaraz is a bold and agile player who can hit just about any shot he imagines. After a bye and defeating Nikoloz Basilashvili in straight sets, 6-3 7-5, Alcaraz needed three to overcome Cameron Norrie 6-4 6-7(4) 6-3.

Next up was compatriot and role model Rafael Nadal. Miomir Kecmanovic had accidently shortened his match against Nadal when he decided not to challenge the match point “ace” that was actually out. So Kecmanovic lost 6-1 7-6(4).

Nadal then had to save four match points to squeeze past David Goffin 6-3 5-7 7-6(9) and advance to his quarter final meeting with Alcaraz. They had last played in the semis of Indian Wells when Nadal won 6-4 4-6 6-3.

In Madrid, Alcaraz was seeded 7 and Nadal, the five-time champion at Madrid, was seeded 3 behind Alexander Zverev and Djokovic.

Nadal broke back straight away and it was Alcaraz’s turn to break again in the almost nine-minute game that followed. After three games where the players held serve, Alcaraz broke Nadal to 15 with brilliant winners and led 5-2.

Rafael Nadal playing Alcaraz. Photo: Corinne Dubreuil

Remarkable serving with new balls from Alcaraz, comprising an ace and three unreturnable serves hit out by Nadal, got him the set 6-2. Alcaraz had won 61% of points when in a defensive position.

Nadal emphatically turned it around in the second set, aided by his opponent’s tumble in the clay that required treatment for a twisted ankle. After his fall, Alcaraz dropped 17 km on his average forehand topspin speed and 10 km on his backhand.

The interruption did not affected Nadal’s focus. When play resumed, he broke twice to go 5-1 and held to love for the set. He had won 20 of the last 22 points.

A post-set bathroom break seemed to revive Alcaraz. He raced to 4-1 with brilliant defence and powerful winners. Nadal hit his first backhand winner to go 40-0 and then proceed to 2-4. Alcaraz went 5-2 thanks to a let cord with the ball dropping over the right way for him. After sitting down, he thanked the heavens and grinned at his box. But it wasn’t over yet as Nadal held serve.

A typical superb drop shot from Alcaraz brought up match point. The rally that won the match for Alcaraz was one of the best. Nadal ran Alcaraz all over the court but made the mistake of hitting back down the middle instead of angling a winner. Alcaraz seized on that ball and hit it past Nadal down the line to the corner.

Perhaps out of respect for the greatest Spanish champion, Alcaraz’s celebration was just a smile to his box and make a subdued walk to the net.

Nadal left the court to a huge ovation from the Spanish fans, including his opponent’s parents.

Rafael Nadal leaves the court after his match with Alcaraz.
Photo: Enrique P. Sans

For the customary message on the camera lens, Alcaraz wrote: QUE HA PASADO? (WHAT JUST HAPPENED?)

On this, his 19th birthday, he beat Nadal.

“It means a lot to me, Alcaraz said. “All the hard work I put in everyday pays off today to beat the best player in history on clay.”

After the match he was asked how, having now beaten Nadal, he would plan for his semi against Djokovic: “I will text [David] Nalbandian, how he did it. I will fight and let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

The reference to Nalbandian was due to the fact that in 2007 he had beaten Nadal and Djokovic (as well as Roger Federer) in Madrid, when the tournament was played on hard court.

David Nalbandian with Roger Federer after the final of the 2007 Madrid Open. Photo: Reuters

Alcaraz had to back up his Nadal victory in a semi against the world’s top player Novak Djokovic. It would be the first meeting between the players.

Djokovic’s quarter final provided him with a 6-3 6-4 win over Hubert Hurkacz, whose 24 unforced errors were unhelpful.  

In the semi, the crowd roared when Alcaraz won the first point and upped the volume even more when he broke serve to take the opening game.

Alcaraz got a 3-1 headstart but Djokovic started to find his game and held to love. At 2-4, he held to love again. He had lost only five points on serve and four of those were in the first game, when he was broken. Djokovic finally converted a game point on Alcaraz’s serve to draw to 4-4. The players then held serve to 6-6.

The Serb roared as he went 5-1 in the tiebreak and the locals in the crowd fell silent. Alcaraz ended Djokovic’s 21 successive points on serve to go 3-6 but lost it 5-7.

Novak Djokovic lets it all out after winning the first set.
Photo: Matthias Oesterle

The tussle that was the second set ended with a sequence that duplicated the rally from a couple of points earlier. Djokovic dropshotted the Spaniard whose speed saw him reach it and do the same back. Djokovic replied with an angled shot floated over the net but Alcaraz was waiting and pushed the ball down the line. He had levelled the match. The crowd found its full voice again and went wild.

The third set was even tighter. At 5-4, Alcaraz ended a rally with a drop shot so far out of Djokovic’s reach that he did not even run for it. At 30-30 in the same game, a 22 groundstroke exchange ended when Alcaraz suddenly changed direction and hit a fierce forehand down the line. He used the same tactic to win the tiebreak and the three-hour 36-minute match 6-7(5) 7-5 7-6(5). Along the way, he hit 34 forehand winners to Djokovic’s six.

The win got Alcaraz another record, the youngest player to defeat a world number 1 in 17 years.

Novak Djokovic congratulates the winner of their semi final.
Photo: Corinne Dubreuil

After the match, Djokovic said, “He held his nerves so well. For someone of his age to play so maturely and courageously is impressive. 

“I’m definitely disappointed with not being able to use my chances in the second set, I had a lot of break points, just wasn’t able to capitalise when it mattered. He did and congrats to him.” 

Referring to his return on the backhand side, he added, “Many times I gave him free points. I mean his kicking up to here [indicating his shoulder] was huge. It was difficult to deal with his ball and I wasn’t feeling my return from that side. He was serving a lot of kick, just to put himself in a good position. I just didn’t manage to handle that well.”

The next day, Alcaraz had to back up from his marathon semi to face the defending champion Alexander Zverev, who’d also won in 2018. Zverev had beaten 8th seed Félix Auger-Aliassime in the quarters 6-3 7-5. He then played perhaps his best tennis of the season in his semi against Stefanos Tsitsipas. Seeking redemption after their last match in Monte Carlo, Zverev was all over any short balls, winning 6-4 3-6 6-2.

Alexander Zverev playing Stefanos Tsitsipas. Photo: Oscar J. Barroso

Alcaraz showed no signs of fatigue in the final and began his typical drop shot winners in the first game.

Zverev did well when he could rely on his first serve, but his anxiety about his opponent’s mobility was obvious when he smashed out into the doubles alley, even though Alcaraz was running the opposite way.

At 3-2, Zverev raced to the net to retrieve a drop shot and sliced the ball back deep into the forehand corner. Alcaraz replied by looping a stunning forehand cross court winner, which he struck while still running both sideways and backwards to behind the baseline.

During his love game to take the first set 6-3 in 31 minutes, Alcaraz produced his sixth drop shot, all of them winners.

Alcaraz broke early in the second set and a drop shot and lob combination secured him another break for a 4-1 lead. He served to love for 5-1 as the kicking serve that had so troubled Djokovic caused the same problems for Zverev.

Only in the final game did Alcaraz reveal any nerves. His returns on the first two championship points were out wildly. On his third opportunity, it was his turn to run for an unreachable drop shot. As it happened, he could just stand and watch the rest of the match, as Zverev double faulted twice to hand his title over to the Spaniard.

Alcaraz won an incredible 89% of his first serves and Zverev made 16 unforced errors with his forehand.

The trophy presentation. Photo: Corinne Dubreuil

At the trophy presentation for the German’s “favourite tournament in the world”, Zverev told his usurper, “Right now you are the best player in the world…It’s great to see for tennis that we have such a new superstar who’s going to win so many grand slams, who’s going to be world number 1 and, I think, going to win this tournament many, many more times.”

Alcaraz allowed himself to relish his achievements. “I would say it’s my best week ever. I beat two of the best players in history, beating Zverev in the final, great player as well, number 3 in the world.

“I believe in myself all the time. I always say I’m not going to play final, I’m going to win final. So I always go for it.”     

Asked if he was ready to win a Slam, he offered, with only a slight hesitation. “Yes, I think so. I think I’m ready to win a Grand Slam, I think I’m ready to go for it.”

Having put down their trophies, each player was presented with a magnum of champagne and playfully sprayed each other before taking a swig.

Carlos Alcaraz was ranked 120 in the world at the finish of the Madrid Open last year. In 2022, he finished the event ranked 6.

Title photo of Carlos Alcaraz at the 2022 Australian Open by Vanessa Taylor

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