Seventeen years ago, a sculpted Spaniard tore through the French Open draw.
But might this be the year the King of Clay is finally unseated at Roland-Garros by a younger and faster version of himself?
Yes, Nadal has lost before in Paris. Just last year, Novak Djokovic beat him in the semifinals, Nadal’s third loss in 108 French Open matches. But a top contender at the French Open has never been so similar to Nadal as 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz from Spain.
Alcaraz sometimes dresses like Nadal. He plays with the same intensity as Nadal. And he’s ascending to the top at nearly the same pace as Nadal was in 2005.
“He’s got so many pieces of the puzzle,” said Àlex Corretja of Spain, a two-time French Open men’s singles finalist and former No. 2 in the rankings. Sometimes it takes a long time to put a puzzle together, but Alcaraz has somehow found a way to do it in a short time, said Corretja, who retired in 2006.
“That’s what pretty much happened with Rafa when he was 18 or 19. He was not as creative as Alcaraz. But you could already see that he was ready to win so many matches because he was so good and he had the desire to win and he had the attitude.”
Alcaraz cracked the top 10 last month, becoming the youngest player to do so since Nadal in 2005. He also became the second-youngest player to win two Masters 1000 titles, with Miami and Madrid titles. Nadal was 18 when he achieved the feat in 2005.
“He is what he is. He is fantastic,” Nadal said of Alcaraz, days after losing to him in the Madrid quarterfinal. “Probably in 2005, I will not say about myself that I was fantastic, but I think I was quite good, too.” Nadal is now 2-1 against him overall.
At times, Alcaraz’s ascent has eerily matched Nadal’s quick climb. For instance, they both cracked the top 10 on the same day, April 25, but 17 years apart, and after winning the same Barcelona tournament for the first time.
But in other ways, Alcaraz’s start has been superior to Nadal’s. Alcaraz has won almost 75 percent of his first 82 matches (61-21). Meanwhile, Nadal won only 61 percent of the first 82 contests (50-32). Alcaraz is also 5-0 in title matches, while Nadal started 3-2.
“I consider that I am playing very, very well,” Alcaraz said after winning Madrid earlier this month.
En route to the Madrid title, Alcaraz became the youngest player to beat both Nadal and Novak Djokovic and the first to beat them both at the same clay-court tournament. “So far, he’s the best player in the world, no question, this year with the results that he’s been doing,” Djokovic said a couple of days after losing to Alcaraz.
While Nadal and Alcaraz’s intensity and game styles have drawn comparisons, Alcaraz plays more aggressively than Nadal did nearly two decades ago. For the entire 2005 season, Nadal averaged hitting 2.5 aces and 1.5 double faults a match. So far this year, Alcaraz is averaging 3 aces and 2.4 double faults a match.
“I think Rafa was like, ‘OK, if you want to beat me, OK, just fasten your seat belt because you’re going to be here forever,’ you know? While Alcaraz is more like, he’s going more for it. And it took some years for Rafa to do that,” Corretja said.
On the return side, their statistics are nearly identical. Alcaraz has converted 48 percent of his break points; Nadal in 2005 converted 46 percent. Alcaraz has won 43 percent of his return points; Nadal won 45 percent.
However, there is one area where Nadal holds a clear advantage over his teenage countryman: Grand Slam tournaments. Nadal has won 21 major championships, including the 2005 French Open, where he became the first man to win the tournament on debut since Sweden’s Mats Wilander in 1982.
But heroics from Nadal in France this year would almost qualify as a surprise. He’s struggled with persistent pain in his left foot, and he has limped – literally and figuratively – into the season’s second Grand Slam tournament. Moreover, after starting the season 20-1 on hard courts, Nadal has gone 3-2 on clay.
Nadal’s draw, which was irrelevant for years, might play an outsized role this year, Corretja noted. Nadal could face Djokovic in the quarterfinals and a potential semifinal against Alcaraz looms.
But no matter what happens in Paris over the next two weeks, you won’t hear Nadal lament the changing of the guard or the generational change. Instead, the 35-year-old with the most major singles championships of any male tennis player has already acknowledged that his time at the top is running out and that Alcaraz could soon assume the throne.