53 Thoughts on Nadal vs. Alcaraz

1. Comparing Alcaraz to the Big Three is not especially helpful. I read a YouTube comment a few weeks ago that described him as having a blend of Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal’s best qualities. This is clearly an exaggeration, and it’s easy to disprove — if Alcaraz really were a package of the Big Three’s best shots, he would have won majors already and would be on course to be a super-GOAT.

What does feel potentially instructive is comparing Alcaraz to other teenage prodigies of the past: namely, young Nadal, even though he is a Big Three member. Back in 2005 in the leadup to Roland-Garros, Nadal was taking scalps left and right. The way he won matches was intriguing — he had a great forehand back then (though it became better), but I think his most piercing weapon was his speed. He was so absurdly fast that no one could hit through him, but at just 18, he could also run at top speed point after point for five hours plus (see the Rome final against Coria). This is why some of his best highlight-reel points are from that year. He had the deadly combination of being lightning-quick and having amazing endurance. Any winner hit against him would have to be a beautiful shot, and even then, sometimes Nadal would sprint for it, swing, and barely miss.

When watching Alcaraz play against Norrie in the quarterfinals, his defense did remind me a little bit of what Nadal did as a really young player. He would make gets at the end of a long sprint, break into a violent slide, then sprint back the other way to get another ball back. At times, he made unbelievable gets to the point that he got back in rallies. I was amazed when Norrie kept his head to finish most of these points anyway.

Alcaraz makes five or six amazing gets in this rally. Afterwards, notice how he jogs a little bit more and doesn’t look out of breath.

All of this isn’t to say that Alcaraz is as good as 2005 Nadal, even the version from before he won Roland-Garros that year. But Alcaraz’s speed and willingness to run after unreachable shots does resemble young Nadal’s to me. It’s a kind of abandon that Nadal has had to give up in the past several years to protect his body. My point is this — Alcaraz may not have the endurance Nadal had (or he might), but a young, fast player willing to run for anything is a spectacle to watch, and an extremely difficult opponent. We’ve had other recent players on the ATP who are great defenders, notably Medvedev, but his style of defense feels different: it’s more reliant on his huge stride length and wingspan, whereas Alcaraz is more of a speed-based defender. Enjoy this part of his game while he’s in his physical prime, because it won’t last forever, or even for his whole career.

2. Alcaraz is the best young breakthrough prospect on the ATP in years. I think there are two main reasons for this. The first is that he has no notable weakness in his game: he’s a better offensive baseliner than Medvedev and Zverev, a better defender than Rublev, a better returner than Tsitsipas. The balance in his game means there is no obvious way to pick apart his game, and that he should be able to have success on all the surfaces, which we’re seeing some of already — when asked if he preferred hard courts or clay, Alcaraz said he felt really comfortable on both.

The second reason is his fantastic return of serve. This is the biggest deficiency in the current generation of ATP players. It’s the central weakness for top players like Tsitsipas, Shapovalov, and Berrettini. Alcaraz, though, is a great returner. In the past 52 weeks, he has the fourth-best return of serve rating on tour, trailing only Djokovic, Nadal, and Schwartzman. At the Australian Open against Berrettini, Alcaraz broke his rival four times despite the big-serving Italian nailing an incredible 71% of his first serves. With this asset, Alcaraz will rarely find himself struggling to break serve, meaning he’ll have an edge when his opponent serves to stay in a set or a match, along with feeling more comfortable in practically every matchup.

3. Going into the match, I found it difficult to imagine a scenario in which I would be disappointed with Alcaraz’s tournament. Alcaraz had been playing so well that he cast serious doubts over who the favorite was…and his opponent was 19-0 in 2022! That seems like a success no matter the result of the match. Plus, Alcaraz is 18 years old and has played a Big Three member all of once in his career (Nadal in Madrid last year). So while the match was a great opportunity to score the biggest win of his career, it also felt relatively pressure-free.

4. Similarly, though Nadal surely expected himself to win, I didn’t see it as a failure on his part had he lost. His winning streak, while amazing, also didn’t seem to carry a ton of pressure. His year has already exceeded expectations by a huge margin, and with the clay season ahead, a loss on hard court (even in a Masters 1000 semifinal) wouldn’t have felt that important.

5. On the first point, Alcaraz soaked up a couple crosscourt forehands from Nadal, then banged an inside-in forehand winner clocked at 95 mph. A few points later, he broke Nadal to 15 by obliterating a crosscourt backhand winner. So no initial nerves, you could say.

6. It was clear early on, like first-game early, that Nadal was going to have to play very well to make headway. The one point he won behind his serve in the opening game was when Alcaraz missed a forehand long that he should have hit for a winner.

7. Alcaraz’s forehand drop shot, a devastating weapon given the huge power he can produce from the same wing, made its first appearance when he served at 1-0, break point. It was a winner.

8. Indian Wells has windy conditions, and when the gales blew as Nadal crouched in his return position, it became clear just how little hair is left on that 35-year-old head.

9. A Tennis Channel graphic displayed that so far in the tournament (as of 1-0 and deuce #3 on Alcaraz’s serve in the first set), Alcaraz has been hitting his forehand both faster than Nadal on average, 76 mph to 73, and with more spin, 3143 RPMs to 3051. That is something.

10. Early on, Alcaraz was playing with relentless aggressive intent. He’s wasn’t being reckless — his shots were well within the lines — but he was trying to take control of every point, and his shots carried enormous pace. Nadal had to do a lot of defending, a trend that continued for much of the match.

11. Nadal tried to set up forehands a couple times by slicing to Alcaraz’s backhand, but the younger Spaniard’s incredible foot speed helped him move around the ball to crush a forehand.

12. Alcaraz consolidated the break from the first game after saving five break points. He looks so confident, all the time. Winner count at this moment: Alcaraz 8, Nadal 0.

13. At 0-2, 30-all, Nadal took a chance and tried a huge second serve out wide. He made it and dispatched the return with a swing volley winner. This speaks to his willingness to step out of his comfort zone, but that he was being made to do so that early speaks to what a brutal opponent Alcaraz is.

14. Alcaraz took lots of backhands early (as the match went on, Nadal had more success pushing Alcaraz back), which is important for two reasons: it takes time away from Nadal and prevents Alcaraz from having to hit backhands at head-height.

15. Alcaraz’s biggest challenge in this matchup seems to be holding serve. Most of his serves in the first set came back, and most of his second serves came back deep. After having to save five break points in his 1-0 service game, he got broken at 15 in his 2-1 service game.

16. Around the fifth game, I was reminded of how Alcaraz began his match against Berrettini at the Australian Open. Though he lost the first set 6-2, he actually started out in god mode — in the first four games, he played so well that I tweeted he would win the match, possibly in straight sets. After the fourth game, though, his level dove off a cliff and didn’t come back until the middle of the second set. In this match, it wasn’t as if he started to play badly, but his level did go down after the second game. It’s amazing that the 18-year-old seems not to suffer from nerves, but I wonder if redlining at the beginning of a match, even successfully, can affect him negatively when he starts to miss. Alcaraz starting a match in red-hot form and then cooling off fairly quickly may be a trend to keep an eye on.

17. Unforced error count as Alcaraz served at 2-3, 40-30: Alcaraz 14, Nadal 4. Moments later, Nadal engaged Alcaraz in a risky deuce-court rally (his backhand, his weaker wing, going to the stronger forehand wing of Alcaraz), and won it with a gigantic crosscourt backhand his junior could barely get a racket on.

18. Nadal had a patch of utter brilliance in the 3-2 game. After his huge crosscourt backhand, he passed Alcaraz with a crosscourt forehand to set up break point. Alcaraz unleashed a 114 mph second serve, and Nadal responded with a forehand return winner down the line. Y’know, run of the mill stuff.

19. Through the first six or seven games, Nadal served with much more success than Alcaraz. He made more first serves and was able to hold with less stress than Alcaraz, whose only service hold had come after saving five break points.

20. Alcaraz’s speed really limited Nadal’s ability to play drop shots. He ran down two of them successfully in the 2-4 game, contributing to the eventual break-back.

21. The first seven games took 48 minutes, an average of almost seven minutes per game. Early in the third set, the average game length had actually increased to a little over seven minutes.

22. Alcaraz really struggled with his serve in the first set — at 3-4, love-30, he had made below 50% of his first serves. The problem is, when he takes pace off the first serve, it comes back deep and Nadal begins the ensuing rally with the advantage. Alcaraz was hitting crazy speeds on the radar gun (up to 142 mph), but it’s not doing him any good since the serves he makes haven’t been that close to the lines.

23. Shortly after I typed that, Alcaraz hit a good slider out wide that set up an easy volley when down 3-4, 15-40, then followed it up with a service winner.

24. Alcaraz saved a total of four break points at 3-4 to hold serve again. Nadal has converted two of his first 12 break points. Alcaraz? Two of two.

25. Both players are so proficient at punishing the opponent’s second serve. Each of them was clearly aware of this, going for huge second serves at times in an attempt to break the pattern.

26. On his fourth set point and 17th break point in the first set, Nadal reached an Alcaraz drop shot in plenty of time, but overcooked his putaway. It was a bad mistake. Unswayed, Nadal then won the next two points to close out the first set, 6-4 (in 67 minutes!).

27. There are two ways to look at the first-set break point statistics from Alcaraz’s perspective. He saved 14 of 17 break points against one of the best players of all time. That’s great! But having to face 17 break points in a single set is far from ideal. Alcaraz played five service games in the first set. He got broken in three and escaped with the other two by the skin of his teeth, saving five break points to hold at 1-0 and another four to hold at 3-4. His serve was under an absolute siege. My suggestion would be to aim for the lines on his serve at any pace — Nadal seems unbothered by central serves, no matter how hard they are. Alcaraz needs to keep Nadal guessing rather than trying to overwhelm his elder with pace. (Alcaraz adopted this strategy to good success, starting in the second set.)

28. Nadal is better served trying to hit the ball past Alcaraz than by trying to fool him with drop shots. Alcaraz is too fast, and too good of a vertical mover, for them to work very well.

29. At 0-1 in the second set, Alcaraz finally held serve without immense strain, dropping just a single point.

30. Nadal’s baseline prowess continues to amaze, long past his physical prime. He won a 26-shot rally at 1-1, love-15 in the second set. This was the 13th rally of more than nine shots, with Nadal having won eight to Alcaraz’s five.

31. The wind kicked up fiercely at the start of the second set. The towels got blown off the players’ benches. At one point a wrapper of some kind flew through Nadal’s side of the court in the middle of a rally. Rallies grew more tentative, with each guy focusing on spin and margin for error rather than aggression.

32. Nadal’s rally shot, already difficult to deal with due to its spin, becomes truly hellish in the wind.

33. Alcaraz did a better job of this early in the match than late, but he hasn’t tried to pick apart Nadal’s backhand very much. His forehand is good enough to inflict some serious pain in the crosscourt pattern from the deuce side, but he hasn’t made the most of his potential profits. It doesn’t feel like he’s appropriately wary of Nadal’s forehand.

34. For all the (deserved) talk of Nadal being a great player in the wind, Alcaraz was the better player for the first few games of the second set, losing just one point on serve across two service games and breaking Nadal for 3-2. The 21-time major champion had a couple disastrous misses in the 2-all game.

35. Alcaraz’s inability to hold serve comfortably hurt him in this match in a bunch of ways, but perhaps most notably it stopped him from being able to hold on to a lead. Consolidating breaks is crucial, particularly against a better opponent. I was reminded of the Sinner-Nadal match in Rome last year — Sinner broke Nadal three times, but was immediately broken back twice and lost in straight sets. Holding serve and breaking serve are both vital, but on their own, they’re not sufficient to win a match. Despite Nadal being broken several times, it never really seemed like he needed to stress too much since he could usually count on a break himself.

36. Nadal usually does very well at net, in part due to him largely volleying behind great approach shots. He didn’t have a great day at net for most of this match. His timing was a bit off, but Alcaraz also got to some shots few others would have, and hit some great low passing shots.

37. The wind wrecked the very good quality of play achieved by both players in the first set. Shots were blown ten feet away from the spot they would have landed under normal conditions. The commentators started to entertain the idea that the conditions were too windy to be playable. A minute, or more, would go by between points (not that either player is at all at fault for this; it’s difficult to serve when dust has blown into your eyes. It just doesn’t make for the most interesting viewing). May Alcaraz and Nadal play again soon on a calmer day, or under a roof.

38. Paul Annacone: “I’m afraid it [the wind] is gonna blow the posts out of the ground.”

39. With Nadal serving at 4-4, 15-30 in the second set, a pole of some kind blew off the net. The chair umpire and a ballgirl worked together to reattach it. The crowd cheered. The fantastic tennis of the first several games of the match felt like they happened about a million years earlier.

40. Nadal and Alcaraz found enough consistency to play a long rally that ended with Nadal nailing a crosscourt backhand winner to save his first break point of the match (at 4-4, 15-40 in the second set).

41. Even in hurricane-force winds, Alcaraz produced a couple sterling backhands in the endless 4-all game and Nadal came up with a crazy reflex volley to save a break point.

42. The wind gave the match an almost comedic feel; it was hard to imagine either player getting aggravated over a miss, because any errant shot was at least partly wind-induced. Nadal saved six break points at 4-all in the second set, and the game didn’t feel like it had much tension, though it did feature some insane shots from both players.

43. On his seventh break point, Alcaraz broke Nadal with a beautiful backhand lob winner. At deuce in the following game, having lost out on two set points to great backhands from Nadal, Alcaraz hit an acrobatic stretch volley winner on a ball that looked to be past him already. That anyone could stay calm enough to hit hot shots in the eye of a storm is amazing, but Alcaraz doing it in the biggest match of his life is quite special.

44. Alcaraz outperforming Nadal at net was one of the more notable happenings of this match. He hit a couple incredibly low-percentage half-volley winners, he made most of his putaways, and he largely came in at the right times.

45. Alcaraz did a great job adjusting after the first set, taking pace off his serves for increased accuracy. He started to hold much more comfortably early in the second set, a trend that continued for some time.

46. When the wind did slacken, Nadal and Alcaraz treated us to some fantastic rallies, some stretching to over 20 shots. The quality of the match rose dramatically early in the third set.

47. Under pressure in the fifth game of the decider, Nadal did some amazing things, hitting winners at love-15, 15-30, 30-40, and ad-out. On the second deuce of the game, he hit a sprawling volley for a winner. Had you taken a photo of Nadal as he made contact with the ball, I’m pretty sure his body would have resembled an airborne spider having a seizure.

48. At least four or five games in the match went for longer than ten minutes. Ad-scoring forever.

49. I mentioned Alcaraz’s speed before, but his quickness totally transformed this match. It’s like he completely took away the drop volley option from Nadal. Time and again, Nadal would push him back and feather a volley short in the court, and time and again, Alcaraz would be up next to it, ready to take a swing before it even dropped below waist-height. Even when he didn’t hit a winning pass and Nadal ended up winning the point, it felt like a big statement had been made.

50. Much is made these days of Nadal’s net skills. On a day when he won a percentage of points at net far lower than he would find ideal, the man still managed to hit several reflex/stretch volleys that made fans’ minds explode.

51. With Alcaraz serving at 3-4, 30-40, Nadal found himself with his first break point chance since the middle of the second set. He crushed the first forehand he got a look at, then flew up to the net and dispatched Alcaraz’s sliced reply for a winner. It was brutal — just peak Nadal, hanging around until the opportunity presented itself, then taking it with both hands.

Serving for the match, Nadal held at love in what felt like 30 seconds. At 3-4, Alcaraz hadn’t done too much wrong — he double faulted on the first point, then went for too much on a forehand at 30-all, but hadn’t faced pressure on serve for an entire set. Nadal barged through the opening, winning six straight points in short order. Good match, kid, but you’ll have to do better than that.

52. Nadal has now won 20 matches in a row. He can equal Djokovic’s record of 37 Masters 1000 titles by beating Taylor Fritz in the final. The clay season is coming up.

Surely this winning streak will end at some point, but when? Nadal might well lose in Madrid, but for the next few months at least, he’s not going to play a match in which he’s not the favorite. I’m not saying he’s going to sweep the clay season, but I think a couple Masters 1000s and yet another Roland-Garros title are far from out of the question. He’s got more momentum behind him that he’s had for years. He would remain a solid underdog against Djokovic on grass or hard courts, but a matchup like that is on the horizon at the closest. If Nadal remains relatively pain-free (we know his foot has been bugging him a bit), it seems like it will take a monumental performance to snap this winning streak. Nadal says he doesn’t care about the #1 ranking, but he might well find himself there soon anyway. He’s got a huge lead in the Race that will surely extend during the clay season.

What is most impressive about this win over Alcaraz is that Nadal really wasn’t playing great tennis this tournament, yet when the situation demanded it, he played not just competently but brilliantly. I can’t get the way he played his lone break point in the third set out of my head — Nadal had been under pressure for most of the set, so much so that the break point appeared almost out of nowhere. Nadal banged a forehand down the line, appeared at net as if conjured from thin air, and put away the easy volley. As they say, he took his chances.

53. Alcaraz might still be shaking his head at how quickly this match slipped away from him — he served at 3-4, 30-15 after having barely lost a point on serve all set, then lost seven points in a row and it was over. That shouldn’t take away how well he played this match, though. Early on, his service struggles looked to be dooming him, but Alcaraz totally solved that problem by the second half of the match, beginning to hold easily rather than facing an epic tussle each service game. He wasn’t far away from winning this match.

Nadal said in his post-match interview that Alcaraz is already one of the best players in the world, and he played the 18-year-old as such. Nadal is right. Alcaraz will rise to 16th in the world in short order. He will probably be comfortably inside the top 10 come Roland-Garros. He played very well today, but there were things he could have done better — it was more that he didn’t play quite well enough than that he wasn’t a good enough player. At 18 years old (18 years old!) he forced Nadal into quite a few uncomfortable positions. Rafa saved himself from defeat with some extremely low-percentage reflex volleys and some fantastic opportunistic aggression late in the third. Who else of Nadal’s recent opponents can say this?

Returning to the initial thought on this list, the comparison to young Nadal: Alcaraz will probably not follow in his countryman’s footsteps by winning Roland-Garros. But his amazing sprint to the top of the game isn’t slowing. His speed, timing, return of serve, and coolheadedness played a huge part in this match; from that huge second serve at 0-2, 30-all in the first set to the reflex volleys in the third, Nadal had to adjust his game significantly to meet the Alcaraz challenge.

This challenge will only grow as the season progresses.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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