Men’s tennis isn’t used to this scenario. A teenager’s rest week shouldn’t be so conspicuous and consequential—opening up the draw at a huge tournament, and making life significantly easier for big dogs like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But Carlos Alcaraz is sitting out this week’s Italian Open, recovering the right ankle he sprained last week, and the rest of the tour is surely unclenching their jaws. That’s a testament to what Alcaraz has achieved, barely 19 years into his life, and five months into this season.
Last weekend Alcaraz wound down a 16-1 stretch—a title in Miami, a first-round loss in Monte Carlo, a title in Barcelona, a title in Madrid—that effectively closed the gap between “best prospect in the world” and “best player in the world.” His colleagues are more than willing to deliver that praise out loud. In his Madrid Open runner-up speech, Sascha Zverev called him “the best player in the world, even though you’re still five years old,” after he was clobbered 6-3, 6-1, in the final of his favorite tournament. It’s what Novak Djokovic said a few days after losing to him in the semifinal the day before. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is four years older than Alcaraz and has lost to him twice this year, went even further: “He inspires me a lot. I really want to be like him. I look up to him.” The Spaniard sits at No. 6 in the official rankings, and on top of the Elo rankings. Even the most irresponsible predictions for his season back in January wouldn’t have been this rosy.
In Madrid, Alcaraz took down Nadal and Djokovic in consecutive days, the first time any player had ever accomplished that feat on clay. Both were knotty three-setters, and both those greats were in roughly B- form—though that’s typically enough to get them past the rest of the tour. In the final, Alcaraz beat Zverev in an anticlimactic straight-set dissection. In all, that’s three top-four players en route to this Masters title. Maxing out on early-career wholesomeness, the teen went home and hoisted that trophy up on the balcony of his family’s apartment, above a crowd of adoring neighbors.
Now what? No one his age is on his level, and no one within the next generation can figure him out either. A player with that nuanced and varied a game is not so straightforward to scout and solve. Where does Alcaraz go from here? At his age, some physical development is assured. And if he somehow doesn’t make a single technical improvement, he’ll still boast more options than any of his peers. If he is to have rivals over the next decade—and I hope he does—they probably haven’t even gone pro yet. (My condolences, Jannik Sinner.)
With Nadal troubled by his chronic left foot pain this week, and Djokovic looking better every week but still low on match reps, Alcaraz emerges as a French Open favorite, well ahead of schedule. No one paying attention to the last three months would be terribly surprised if he won it. I’m done making predictions one way or another. This video of him, from his first ATP win in 2020 to his present-day dominance, is an eerie chronicle of his development. This kid just doesn’t make sense.