Road to Slam Glory: The Carlos Alcaraz story
Carlos Alcaraz has stunned the tennis world with his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the men’s game, and he does not look like stopping there.
In the space of just three seasons on the ATP tour, the teenager has rewritten the rules of the game with his explosive movement and show-stopping shotmaking. Now a Slam champion with his US Open triumph, Tennishead looks back at the major milestones Alcaraz reached on the way there.
First ATP win – Rio Open 2020
With a handful of ITF Futures titles to his name and seven match wins at Challenger level, a 16-year-old Alcaraz took a wildcard into the 2020 Rio Open. Ranked 406th in the world, the youngster faced seventh seed, world number 41 countryman Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
A three-set, three and a half hour marathon ensued, culminating in a final set tiebreak to determine the victor. And Alcaraz claimed it 7-2 to win a tour level match at the first time of asking, dropping his racket and holding his head in disbelief.
“I will remember Rio forever,” he said taking in the 7-6 (7-2), 4-6, 7-6 (7-2) win. “I am very happy to win my first ATP tour match. This has been the longest and most intense match I’ve played so far. There were quite difficult conditions, but if you have the right attitude, the conditions don’t matter. You can achieve anything.”
And oh what he would go on to achieve…
First ATP title – Croatia Open 2021
The pandemic-induced tour hiatus came and went, and Alcaraz went straight to work, winning a Challenger event in Trieste, Italy in just his second event back. Launching himself into the ATP top 300, he backed it up with a Challenger final right after, only losing to world number 178 Bernabe Zapata Miralles. Two more Challenger titles in Barcelona and Alicante in October saw the now 17-year-old into the top 150, ending 2020 ranked 141st in the world after starting it at 490th.
A first top 20 win against David Goffin came in Melbourne to start 2021, before a Slam main draw debut at the Australian Open saw Alcaraz reach the second round after coming through qualifying. Fast forward to May, and ranked 120th, Alcaraz received a wildcard into his home Masters in Madrid, only his second ever Masters 1000 event. Another impressive result transpired as he defeated world number 34 Adrian Mannarino 6-4, 6-0 to face the great Rafael Nadal.
On his 18th birthday, Alcaraz relished the moment but was thoroughly beaten 6-1, 6-2, a result that would prove a yardstick for another meeting between the two a year later.
Next came a run through qualifying and into the third round at Roland Garros, plus a second round run at Wimbledon before being stopped by Daniil Medvedev. Those results took Alcaraz to 73rd in the world, making him the seventh seed at the Croatia Open in Umag in late July. Wins over Lucas Pouille and Andrej Martin precipitated, before the teen took out third seed Filip Krajinovic and top seed and old foe Ramos-Vinolas to reach the final.
It was a generational battle in the championship match as 18-year-old Alcaraz, in his first tour level final, faced 35-year-old Richard Gasquet, the Frenchman competing in his 32nd ATP tour final and vying for a 16th title. Alcaraz breezed past his elder to win 6-2, 6-2 to lift his first tour title.
”It’s amazing, I have a lot of emotions,’ he said after clinching the title. “I’m going to enjoy this moment a lot.”
Alcaraz the generational talent – Next Gen Finals 2021
An astounding run to the quarter-finals of the US Open, including a monumental third round victory over French Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, brought Alcaraz inside the world’s top 50. Ranked 32nd in the world come November, Alcaraz qualified third for the fourth edition of the Next Gen ATP Finals, the ATP Finals equivalent for players aged 21 and under.
As Jannik Sinner qualified as alternate for the ATP Finals proper and Felix Auger-Aliassime elected not to play in Milan, Alcaraz was seeded first at the event. After winning all three of his round robin matches for the loss of just one set, the Spaniard downed Sebastian Baez in the last four to reach the final. There he faced second seed and world number 39 Sebastian Korda. The American was no match for Alcaraz though, as he won 4-3 (7-5), 4-2, 4-2 to become the fourth Next Gen ATP Finals champion, and the youngest at just 18.
First ATP 500 title – Rio Open 2022
Alcaraz reached the third round of the Australian Open before his campaign was ended by Matteo Berrettini, the Italian going on to make the semi-finals. From there Alcaraz journeyed to South America for the first clay 500 level event of the season in Rio de Janeiro.
Two years on from his first tour level win, Alcaraz was up 377 ranking spots and seeded seventh in the tournament. He again met Berrettini, downing him in three sets in the quarter-finals, going on to face Diego Schwartzman in the final. As in Umag, Alcaraz won in straight sets with ease, 6-4, 6-2, becoming the youngest ATP 500 champion in the history of the format.
“I can’t believe it, honestly,” he admitted after the win. “It has been a great week for me playing a great level. My first tournament on clay for a long time, so I’m really happy with the performance during the whole week. It’s an amazing feeling right now.”
First Masters 1000 title – Alcaraz Masters Miami
Moving north, Alcaraz put on a stunning display in Indian Wells to reach the semi-finals before a second career meeting with Nadal. And what a difference 10 months had made, as though Alcaraz did eventually lose 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, he pushed his compatriot far harder than in Madrid the previous year.
Onto Miami and Alcaraz was in imperious form. He once again ousted Tsitsipas in a match that had the crowd electrified from the first point to the last. Another showpiece match against Miomir Kecmanovic was won by Alcaraz 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), before the Spaniard defeated defending champion Hubert Hurkacz 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-2) to reach a first Masters 1000 final in just seventh main draw at that level.
Up against fellow first-time finalist Casper Ruud, Alcaraz kept his streak of straight sets wins in tour finals going, overcoming the Norwegian 7-5, 6-4 to lift the trophy in Florida.
“I have no words to describe how I feel right now,” described Alcaraz. “It’s so special to win my first Masters 1000 here in Miami. I have an unbelievable team with me and family. I’m so happy with the win and my team.”
Second Masters 1000 title – Madrid Open 2022
Here is where things truly ramp up for Alcaraz. On the cusp of turning 19, the newly-crowned Masters champion entered Madrid ranked ninth in the world, and with another title under his belt, the ATP 500 Barcelona Open. After a first round bye, the home talent defeated Nikoloz Basilashvili and world number 11 Cameron Norrie to once again face idol Nadal, this time in the quarter-finals.
What a shift from a year prior, as Alcaraz defeated the 35-year-old 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 for his first win over him in three attempts. Next came world number one Novak Djokovic, a first battle between the two. Again Alcaraz prevailed, downing the three-time champion 6-7 (5-7), 7-5, 7-6 (7-5) to become the first man to ever beat Nadal and Djokovic in the same clay court event.
But the 19-year-old was not done there as he completed his title run by crushing second seed and defending champion Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-1 to land a second Masters title, defeating the three top seeds back-to-back in the process.
“It feels great to be able to beat these players. To beat two of the best players in history and then Zverev, the world number three. He is a great player. I would say this is the best week of my life,” gushed Alcaraz.
First Slam title and ascendency to world number one – Alcaraz reigns in New York
From May to August, Alcaraz underperformed compared to the incredibly high standards he was now setting for himself. Runs to the quarter-finals of the French Open and fourth round of Wimbledon were impressive, but losses in the finals of the Hamburg Open and Umag were unexpected from the teen.
Heading back to North America, Alcaraz claimed a 2-2 record across the Montreal and Cincinnati Masters events, losing in his first match at the Canadian tournament. Coming into the US Open, five players were in with a shot at world number one come the end of the Slam: Daniil Medvedev, Rafael Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud and, of course, Carlos Alcaraz.
As Tsitsipas lost in the first round and Medvedev in the fourth, only Nadal, Alcaraz and Ruud remained in contention from there. Seeded third, Alcaraz came through his first three matches without dropping a set before facing 2014 champion Marin Cilic in the fourth round. The match lasted nearly four hours into the early morning in New York, Alcaraz triumphing 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 past 2am in one of the latest finishes in tournament history. More late night brilliance was to come though, as Alcaraz met generational rival Jannik Sinner in the quarter-finals.
The Italian had got the better of Alcaraz at Wimbledon to end the Spaniard’s run there, but Alcaraz is a different man on the hard courts. Sinner had match point late in the fourth set, but Alcaraz saved it before extending the match to a decider. He then won the tussle 6-3, 6-7 (7-9), 6-7 (0-7), 7-5, 6-3 after five hours and 15 minutes, the second longest match in US Open history and latest ever finish at 2:51am local time.
Alcaraz then faced home favourite Frances Tiafoe, the American having defeated Nadal in the fourth round before downing Andrey Rublev to reach his first Slam semi-final. It was also a first for Alcaraz, and the duo fought in a tough encounter that was balanced on a knife-edge. Alcaraz outlasted his opponent eventually, winning 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, his third successive five-setter and one that lasted more than four hours.
So, the final, and Alcaraz faced Ruud again, the man he beat in Miami for his maiden Masters crown. Whoever won would become the new world number one and a first-time Major champions. The Norwegian was into his second Slam final of the year, having faced Nadal in the Roland Garros final in June. While he faired better on this occasion, Alcaraz was too much for Ruud, as the Spaniard won in four sets 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7-1), 6-3 to become the seventh youngest men’s Slam champion and youngest world number one in the history of the ATP rankings.
“It is something I have dreamt of since I was a kid,” Alcaraz declared during the trophy ceremony. “To be number one in the world, to be champion of a Grand Slam, is something I have worked really, really hard [for].
“All the hard work I have done with my team and my family. I am just 19 years old, all the tough decisions have been with my parents and my team as well. It is something that is really special for me.”
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