Carlos Alcaraz is second-favourite for the French Open. Some people think he is the favourite. Those people think that 13-time champion Rafael Nadal’s failure to overcome the teenager in Madrid was a passing of the torch moment. They may yet be right.
Alcaraz sounded his first warning signal to the world of tennis just a month before the global tennis tour shut down in March 2020, beating Albert Ramos-Vinolas in Rio de Janeiro to record his first tour victory.
It was not just that the 16-year-old playing his first ever match at ATP Tour level picked up a win over the world No 41, it was the manner of it. The match was three grueling sets and lasted more than three-and-a-half hours, finishing after 3am on a humid Brazilian night. It was a super-human effort. Were it not for the pandemic, his major breakthrough might have come in the months that followed, rather than two years later.
The claims that Alcaraz was the future and indeed the present of tennis grew louder still in New York last year: his run to the quarter-final included an epic five-set victory over then-world No 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas and victory in another epic against Peter Gojowczyk in the next round. He retired injured from his quarter-final against Felix Auger-Aliassime but the point had been made. When he then won events in Miami, Barcelona and most recently Madrid, it was not much of a surprise to those who had followed his progress. His rise from him to the top was a matter of when, not if.
Now he has the pressure of expectation to deal with. After reaching the third round of the Australian Open and being edged out in a fifth-set tie-break by Matteo Berrettini, he was considered a significant outsider to win at Roland Garros, matched at 40-1 on the Betfair Exchange, equivalent to a 2.5 per cent chance of victory. That number went up every time he landed a big result: when he bagged his first ATP title in Rio de Janeiro, that crept up to nearly eight per cent. That number was up to 10 when Miami started lin March and by the time he bagged the title, he had doubled to 20.
After two more titles on clay, Exchange data now suggests he has a 43 per cent chance of winning the French Open. Public perception has shifted. He is expected to be in the semi-finals at least, if not further.
Thus far, nerves do not seem to have been a problem. In the Madrid final on Sunday, he had to make the transition from underdog to favourite: against Nadal in the quarters, the crowd had wanted their favorite to win; against Novak Djokovic in the semis, he had the crowd on his side but not expectation; against Alexander Zverev, he had both. He was helped by the fact that Zverev had got to bed at 5am the night before due to his late semi-final, but nevertheless he looked devoid of nerves. Will the French Open be such an easy nut to crack?
“I think that Roland Garros is special for me because of the fact that last year it was the first grand slam that I was able to make it to the third round, winning good matches, playing at a good level,” Alcaraz said on Sunday night.
“This year, I think that people are going to think that I’m going to be one of the favorites to win Roland Garros, but I always said that I have a different view. I don’t have it as tension; I have it as a motivation.
“I really look forward to going to Paris, to fighting for the grand slam, and I am really looking forward to show my great level in a grand slam too.”
That was before he pulled out of Rome this week, in part due to an ankle injury suffered in the victory over Nadal. It means he will have not one but two full weeks to hit and stew, to consider what it means to be a top-eight seed at a grand slam that holds special significance for a man who grew up with constant comparisons to Nadal.
Zverev, doubtless unintentionally, ratcheted up the pressure in his post-match speech.
“Right now you are the best player in the world,” he said. “It is great for tennis that we have such a new superstar that is going to win so many grand slams, that is going to be world No 1 and I think he is going to win this tournament many more times.”
Alcaraz grinned infectiously and applauded Zverev’s generosity, which had begun early in the first set and continued well beyond the final point. The young Spaniard cannot expect such gifts from his opponents in Paris, but if he plays as well as he can, he will not need them.