On April 3, my friend Waldo sent me a message on my mobile: "The Alcaraz era begins." Five months and ten days later The New York Times and The Times of London have found out. The American newspaper said this Monday, "The Alcaraz era is here"; English, "The Alcaraz era has begun."
I don't remember exactly when I first saw the one both Times call “the teenage sensation” or “the supremely talented Spaniard” play for the first time. I think it was at the beginning of the year while I was browsing YouTube, my favorite television channel, and suddenly I saw it, a three-minute summary of a game that Carlos Alcaraz had won, maybe in Rio de Janeiro.
I thought, “WHAT IS THIS?”. And then I reflected, “My God. It's another tennis. This Charlie Brown, this baby-faced tiger, is going to dominate the sport for a decade or more.”
During the long Nadal-Federer era from time to time I watched plays from matches of the great Rod Laver in the 1960s, then Borg and McEnroe in the 1970s and 1980s, then Sampras in the 1990s. In each case I saw tennis go up one gear. Laver's game seemed slow-motion compared to, say, what was seen in the epic 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer. Now I see Alcaraz and I have the feeling that that great match was also played in slow motion.
I suspect that the Alcaraz era will be seen as a qualitative leap in tennis, which makes Rafa Nadal's feat this year even more extraordinary, his two Grand Slam victories, his ability to adapt to the brutal rhythm of the game of young people and succeed. Alcaraz is not going to win it all. Italian Jannik Sinner may be his main rival. Casper Ruud, if he isn't left traumatized by Sunday's loss in the US Open final, he may also have a lot to say in the years to come.
But Alcaraz is something different, something special. I say "tiger" as I might say "waterfall" or "hurricane" or "erupting volcano," or some other irresistible force of nature. He hits his right hand with the power almost of his first serve, the unappealable turbo blow with which he put an end to Ruud's resistance in New York, to become the youngest tennis number one in history.
I remember that when Nadal and I wrote his biography a decade ago, he told me that the secret was to wait and wait until he detected the opponent's moment of weakness, and only then go on the attack and try a winning shot. Alcaraz does not wait. He goes for all. There are times, like in the second and third set of the final against Ruud, when he looks like a runaway horse and you want to whisper in his ear, “Ssssh, ssssh, sssh…calm, calm”. But the incredible thing is the very high percentage of successes of him.
And at the same time its finesse. The warm drop shot, the one that gently grazes the net, is a house brand as much as its fierce drives. It has all the resources. It has no weak point.
The only thing that can stop your stampede to glory is your head, the wise say. There is no sign that he is not mentally up to the task. Quite the contrary. After losing the second set against Ruud, Alcaraz was reeling in the third. The Norwegian won more points than the Spaniard in the set. But with scratches and claws Alcaraz was saved, he somehow reached the tie-break and there he killed his demoralized rival, four years older than him. Therein lies the difference in tennis between the champion and the almost champion: the murderous coldness at the crucial points.
Tennis is a sport in which the psychological component weighs more than in any other, with the possible exception of boxing. It may be that the difference with the rival in terms of talent is minuscule, but if you manage to get into his head the idea that you are –by morale, by plant– superior, you already have three quarters of the match won.
Alcaraz is already the alpha male of the pack. His rivals see it, the fans saw it in the largest tennis stadium in the world, the one in New York, who supported him madly from the beginning of the tournament until the end. The young Spaniard transmits an animal magnetism that arouses fervor not only in Spain but among anyone who watches him play. He seemed that after Nadal and Federer, nothing. The death of the illusion. Well no. What was the one that awaits us!