Carlos Alcaraz is tennis' next superstar. But is he ready to win the French Open?

·5 min read

By the time the French Open began in 2005, a Spanish teenager had already put the tennis world on notice that he was about to be the sport’s next great star. Still, there were questions: Was Rafael Nadal ready at just 19 years old to conquer a Grand Slam title?

The answer, of course, became apparent over those two weeks. Nadal raced by No. 1 Roger Federer in the semifinals and then beat clay-court specialist Mariano Puerta in the first of what now stands as a record 21 Grand Slam titles.

Nadal’s particular brand of dominance at Roland Garros, where he’s won 13 times with a career record of 105-3, has in some ways made it tennis’ most monotonous major. There has rarely, if ever, been a year during Nadal’s run that included a build-up of intrigue about what might transpire on the red clay in Paris. Nadal always seemed too inevitable.

But this year’s French Open begins Sunday with a much different feeling, one that feels far more similar to Nadal’s breakthrough 17 years ago. And once again, it’s a Spanish teenager providing the kind of energy that tennis hasn’t felt in quite some time.

Yes, Carlos Alcaraz is coming along at the perfect moment for a sport that has relied on the brilliance and durability of the Big Three for far longer than it had any right to expect. Nobody is in a hurry to shove Nadal and Novak Djokovic off to retirement, and there’s still hope that Roger Federer can come back from knee injuries for one more goodbye on his own terms.

But tennis needs the next one — not just to inherit the crown after they leave, but to take it from them. And the mere fact that Alcaraz has a legitimate chance to do it right here, right now, makes this French Open the most anticipated men’s tennis tournament in quite some time.

Recent history would suggest that this is a case of too much hype, that Alcaraz should at least go out and win a Slam or two before we even begin the torch passing conversation. That’s fair. So many young players over the last dozen years have been burdened with that expectation, only to end up crumbling when they see Nadal or Djokovic on the other side of the net in a best-of-five-set match at the business end of a Grand Slam.

But short of actually winning one of these major tournaments, Alcaraz has already proven that he’s made for this, that he’s one of the rare ones who embraces the challenge and the stage. He showed a glimpse of that at the U.S. Open last fall, when his swashbuckling game captured the New York crowd and he upset No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in a fifth-set tiebreak.

WIMBLEDON: Tours will not award ranking points this year for major

Spain's Carlos Alcaraz is ranked No. 6 in the world and has won titles in Madrid, Barcelona, Miami and Rio de Janeiro in 2022.
Spain's Carlos Alcaraz is ranked No. 6 in the world and has won titles in Madrid, Barcelona, Miami and Rio de Janeiro in 2022.

That run to the quarterfinals set Alcaraz up for a breakthrough year in 2022, where even the most aggressive expectations were that he might make the top 10 at some point if everything went well.

Instead, Alcaraz has already reached No. 6 after winning titles in Rio de Janeiro, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid in a run very reminiscent of Nadal’s spring rampage in 2005 when he catapulted from outside the top-50 to the No. 4 seed by the French Open.

Along the way, Alcaraz has beaten almost every relevant Roland Garros contender this year including Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud and Alexander Zverev. But when Alcaraz beat both Nadal and Djokovic on back-to-back days earlier this month in Madrid, not only out-hitting them from the baseline but showing elite touch and confidence in tense moments, it became clear that his timetable had changed considerably. He’s ready now.

Adding to the intrigue in Paris are the divergent paths this season of Nadal and Djokovic. After the fiasco prior to the Australian Open, where Djokovic was deported by the government because he had not been granted proper permission to enter the country unvaccinated against COVID-19, Djokovic did not play much until mid-April. He looked very rusty and short on endurance until last week when he played very good tennis to win the Italian Open title.

Nadal, who surprised himself by winning that Australian Open title, has subsequently dealt with injuries and looked like a diminished, physically compromised player in Madrid and Rome. He has acknowledged that trying to manage chronic foot pain is just a part of his existence at this point, and it’s unpredictable from day to day whether it will flare up in ways that make him unable to perform at his best.

The way the draw shook out, Djokovic and Nadal would potentially meet in the quarterfinals, with the winner possibly facing Alcaraz for a spot in the final.

Nothing is inevitable in tennis, but it feels like this entire year has been tracking toward a historic showdown of eras in Paris, where the most impressive teenager since Nadal is coming for his turf, his tournament, and eventually, the entire sport.

Tennis has yearned for someone like Alcaraz with the game and charisma and confidence to understand his own talent and grab history by the throat. He’s not done it yet, but it’s coming. It’s the real thing. And over the next couple weeks in Paris, we’ll find out if it’s already his time.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: French Open gives Carlos Alcaraz Grand Slam stage for breakthrough

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting