Two legacies at risk as wonderkid rocks tennis

The similarities are eerie. In 2005, a Spaniard who had just turned 19, ranked number five in the world, claimed his first grand slam title at Roland-Garros.

In 2022, another Spaniard who has just celebrated his 19th birthday, will head to the same venue, ranked sixth in the world and in search of a maiden major victory.

The two men in question, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz, are at opposite ends of their careers, but there’s every chance at least one of them will be there when the trophies are handed out in Paris in just over a fortnight’s time.

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Nadal, of course, needs no introduction. His 21 grand slam titles include 13 at Roland-Garros, a venue where he boasts a scarcely believable 105-3 record.

Alcaraz’s 2-1 record in Paris will look considerably better by the time he’s done. He won the Madrid Masters earlier this month, a victory achieved in some style, with wins over Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev in consecutive matches.

“He’s made a massive statement. He is now a serious contender going into Roland-Garros,” tennis legend Todd Woodbridge told Wide World of Sports.

“Perhaps most impressive was the way he demolished Zverev in the final. That sends a real message to the rest of the tour. He could easily have had a letdown after beating Nadal and Djokovic.

“What it says to me is that there’s just no fear factor, he’s not scared, he’s in control of his nerves in those big matches.

“He likes the big stage, he likes the occasion, and they’re all factors that normally you expect take time for a young player to develop. He has clearly got all of those aspects of his development out of the way so quickly.”

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During last year’s US Open, where Alcaraz reached the quarter finals of a slam for the first time, Woodbridge noted that the word was the young Spaniard was “the closest thing to Rafa since Nadal came along.”

Along the way he became the fifth youngest player ever to record match wins at all four grand slams, and the first since Nadal in 2005 to do so before turning 19.

His rise in the rankings has been just as impressive. The youngest player currently ranked in the top 150, he’s firmly entrenched at number six in the world, having been at 97 this time last year.

“What I found interesting is that he’s been out on tour long enough for the locker room to have a playbook on how to beat him, yet he’s still handling it really well,” Woodbridge explained.

“That’s really impressive. Now though, he’s got the expectation that he will put on himself to keep achieving. The first question is Roland-Garros, and how he handles that.

“He made the third round there last year, a good solid result and he’ll have a feel for the setting. It will then come down to the team around him, and he’s got a great team. Juan-Carlos Ferrero seems to have a calm nature that keeps Alcaraz grounded just enough to really help him.”

A question mark hangs over Nadal’s fitness, specifically a long-term problem with his foot that hampered him in Rome last week, where he lost to Denis Shapovalov in the second round.

“Rafa is the favorite for Roland-Garros as long as physically he’s OK,” Woodbridge said.

“He had a good week in Madrid, yes he lost to Alcaraz, but he didn’t lose easily. He’ll keep improving heading to Paris, and five-set experience is the factor that makes him the favourite.

“Carlos beat Stefanos Tsitsipas at the US Open last year, but that’s the next test for him, can he consistently beat the big names over best of five sets?”

The stunning rise of Alcaraz has put the likes of Zverev and Tsitsipas on notice. Unlike the 26-year-old Daniil Medvedev, neither Zverev (25) nor Tsitsipas (23) have won a grand slam.

Having served their apprenticeship waiting for the big three to shuffle off into retirement, the next few years should have been their time.

Carlos Alcaraz vs Matteo Berrettini: Australian Open 2022 | Tennis Highlights

Instead, they face the prospect of playing second fiddle to the game’s next wonderkid.

“If you’re those guys, especially Tsitsipas, it’s time,” Woodbridge said.

“He can’t let this kid get in front of him. By any measure, he’s already joined him.

“Tsitsipas is going to have to lift his level. The generation that’s been sitting there waiting, this is a wake-up call to them to not let a younger player like Carlos come along and take that opportunity from them.”

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