The Golden Boy

In 2003, a ponytail-laden man with great court coverage and a forehand with the most easy power you’ve ever seen won Wimbledon. The tennis world fell in love with him instantly. He would win no fewer than 14 of the next 24 major titles, picking up the Career Grand Slam along the way and breaking Pete Sampras’s ATP record of 14 majors less than seven years after it had been set. He was the golden boy. His name was Roger Federer.

In 2005, a kid with stringy hair, capri pants, and the kind of speed that is usually limited to track stars went undefeated during the clay season. He had a forehand that bounced devilishly high off any surface, a weapon tempered by the tennis gods with the expressed intent of destroying backhands, particularly one-handers. As the kid aged into his twenties, his abilities molded themselves to other surfaces, and by 2008, he had dethroned Federer at Wimbledon. He was the golden rival to the golden boy. His name was Rafael Nadal.

A third guy suffered at the hands of these titans for years, a guy who had a near-perfect game but physical and mental weaknesses, a guy with a gluten allergy. In 2011, he put it all together and started beating up on both Federer and Nadal. He wasn’t quite as widely adored — the tennis world was content with one golden rivalry — but before long, it was obvious that with this guy around, the top of the men’s game had become a take-no-prisoners battle royale that was often too bright to look at directly. The third guy pushed his predecessors to improve their games, he smiled in the face of adversity, and boy, did he ever save some match points. His name was Novak Djokovic.

Since 2011, it has been these three, with the occasional Andy Murray or Stanislas Wawrinka intervention. Until 2016 or so, everything was glorious. Nadal and Djokovic played a pair of brutal, historic five-setters. Federer wasn’t gleaming quite as much as he had before 2009 or so, but was still easily good enough to be a factor at the top. The monotony of the faces next to the big trophies wasn’t boring in the least because of the consistently epic struggles required to win the titles.

After 2016, though, the tone changed a bit. Sure, the Big Three still dominated — when Djokovic declined after a spell of utter supremacy in 2015 and early 2016, Federer and Nadal immediately moved in to fill the gap — but they were in their thirties at this point. And sure, they were still the best of all time, but tennis history had told us thirty-somethings shouldn’t be able to dominate. We did get a last sublime match in the form of Djokovic-Nadal at Wimbledon 2018, but the quality of the biggest matches had gone down a bit. So we looked to the younger players to rise to the occasion.

They didn’t. The story of the LostGen is a sad one: a group of players with not quite enough skill and not quite enough belief that they could beat the middle-aged men at the top of the game. They were supposed to take over and were beaten so consistently by the Big Three that the LostGen actually declined first, despite being five-odd years younger on average.

Then we looked to the NextGen, the next next crop of young players. Surely this time would be different. Nick Kyrgios had the talent, Stefanos Tsitsipas had “future #1” written all over him, Daniil Medvedev had a game devoid of weaknesses. And Medvedev was indeed the one to crack through the Big Three stronghold, beating Djokovic in last year’s U.S. Open final. However, any inkling that he was the next Golden Boy shattered when he lost to Nadal from two sets up in the Australian Open final months later. Medvedev was great, and would surely go on to win more majors, but he wasn’t a transcendental player. He had only mastered the hard courts.

The problem was, Medvedev looked like the best player of the NextGen by some distance. Many of his peers had a glaring weakness in their return of serve (Tsitsipas, Berrettini, Shapovalov), and those with more well-rounded games seriously lacked the mental discipline to play long matches without cracking (Kyrgios, Zverev). Simply by virtue of the Big Three moving into their mid-30s and early 40s, the NextGen looked fated to take over, but there was not a Golden Boy among them.

We have been spoiled by the success of the Big Three. Everyone knows it, but understanding the problem doesn’t automatically lower expectations that have been ingrained into us by nearly two decades of peerless tennis. We have come to need a Golden Boy. It’s no longer enough to be impressed with someone, we need to be dazzled by someone. The tour knows this, which is why they tried so hard (and are still trying to an extent) to market Kyrgios, then Zverev, as the next Golden Boy. Kyrgios’s on-court tantrums and tirades at umpires turned many people off, but Tennis TV ignored that in their highlight videos, implying the behavior was entertaining controversy rather than just problematic. Zverev has been credibly accused of domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend, Olya Sharypova. He’s said nothing that comes remotely close to absolving himself. The ATP has been slow to investigate, doing next to nothing for almost a year, then waiting months to contact Sharypova after beginning an investigation.

The ATP, quite obviously, was desperate. They had good players, and some nice players, but their best players were well outside Golden Boy territory. We’d been saying for years that the Dark Ages were coming, but as long as the beacons of light that were the Big Three hung around, the next era would be delayed. And we couldn’t yet look to the next next next crop of young players, as a teenager hadn’t had significant success on the ATP in ages. 25 was the new 20, 30 was the new 25, 35 was the new 30.

“Tennis will be fine,” we agreed. And we were right, because tennis is tennis, a sport of epic physical and mental capacity that could be interesting to watch if two moderately proficient ten-year-olds picked up rackets. Still, the elephant in the room was that we didn’t have a Golden Boy. Men’s tennis was going to be fine, yes, but perhaps not much better than that. This looked like the future. Until he showed up.

You have surely seen him play by now. He is just 18, but he is as well-rounded as anyone on tour. Fans have described him as “a mix of the best qualities of the Big Three.” His forehand is a heavy comet. He can hit his backhand down the line. He is the best ATP prospect at returning serve since Murray and Djokovic. He is fast, fast like young Nadal was, fast in a way that puts the drop volley in serious danger of extinction when he takes the court. He’s got great touch, both on the drop shot and at net. He never loses his head. He is confident. Explosive. He seems like a nice guy. Tennis TV have pinned him to the top of their Twitter account. His name is Carlos Alcaraz. He is the next Golden Boy.

This isn’t to say that he is going to have a career like Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic. Way too many things remain unknown to make a prediction like that (injuries, potential rivals, how his motivation will hold up once he starts to win big ones). What is clear, though, is that Alcaraz is what the ATP have been looking for. He is a player who inspires pure awe in fans when they watch him. A player who makes you seriously wonder what it will take to beat him. A player who has a game that would make some top-five players positively weep with envy. He’s capable of Monfils-esque hot shots, but is also consistent and durable enough to play a three-hour thriller and emerge unscathed physically.

Virtually everything you can say about his game is positive. The serve is not great, but it’s a weakness he easily compensates for rather than an area he needs to improve. The feeling is that if he can become a merely competent spot server, everyone else is screwed.

*****

His rise has been so fast that it’s almost comical. Take his two losses this year. The first was a five-set loss to Matteo Berrettini at the Australian Open. Alcaraz faded in the fifth set tiebreak, double faulting on match point. The loss seemed easy to get over, though — Alcaraz had been two sets down, so it felt like a near-miss on stealing the match rather than a heartbreaker. Then there was the close loss to Nadal at Indian Wells, which could be rationalized by saying that Alcaraz wasn’t quite ready to beat a GOAT yet, and even then, he had forced Nadal to hit several insane volleys to win the match. Even his collapse against Hugo Gaston at the Paris Masters last year, where Alcaraz blew a 5-0 lead in the second set, felt like an ideal learning experience. It was in the round of 16 in a Masters 1000, so a big match, but Alcaraz has played far bigger ones already.

Alcaraz just won the Miami Open, making him the youngest ATP Masters 1000 champion in 17 years, but the way he won is more telling than the big title itself. Against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alcaraz fell behind 2-5 to a storm of brilliant serves and returns (!) from the world #5. Out of nowhere, Alcaraz then started to blast winners of every imaginable kind. By the time he came back to earth, he had won the first set 7-5 and was up 2-0 in the second, with a love-30 lead on Tsitsipas’s serve to boot. The fifth-best player in the world had been reduced to a spectator. He really didn’t do much wrong — just a loose game at 5-3 — Alcaraz won most of the points during the run with winners or error-forcing shots. Tsitsipas had played, on the whole, a very good match, yet was outclassed by a player five years younger than him.

Then there was his next match against Miomir Kecmanović. Kecmanović is ranked 48th in the world, but consensus was that he played at a top-five level. Alcaraz lost a desperately close, high-octane first set, then put his nose to the grindstone to win the second and slog through the third, even as Kecmanović looked to be the better player. In another tiebreak, Alcaraz fell behind 5-3 but fought to match point with a trio of point-ending shots. Kecmanović pushed Alcaraz deep into his forehand corner, then came to net and loosed a drop volley short on the ad side. Alcaraz sprinted in, taking eight giant steps, then as he reached the ball, went into a slide to ensure he wouldn’t run into the net. He timed it perfectly, stopping inches short of it, and poked a beautiful backhand past Kecmanović for the winner. The crowd lost its mind.

In the final against Ruud, Alcaraz fell behind 4-1 in the first set, but such is his returning prowess that a deficit like this always feels correctable, and it was — Alcaraz climbed back to level the set. Then, at 5-all and 15-30 up on Ruud’s serve, Alcaraz chased down a very good crosscourt forehand from Ruud. It was a shot most players would have tried to repel with a slightly loopier shot than normal, to give themselves an extra moment to recover to the middle of the court. Alcaraz decided to blast it back crosscourt at the ungodly pace of 102 mph. He broke serve shortly afterwards, then didn’t lose another game until he had pocketed the first set and gone up a double break in the second. Ruud fought gamely, but to me the resistance seemed knowingly futile, like Ruud was battling because he knew he was supposed to, not because he still thought he could win.

Alcaraz served the final out to love. At 40-love, he glanced to his box and nodded. It’s something he does a lot. The gesture says nothing more than that he knows how good he is, that he understands completely what he is capable of and loves it when he meets his own high standards. “Cool as the other side of the pillow,” a commentator said. Then Alcaraz served and volleyed with almost casual ease on championship point and fell to the ground in elation.

*****

Alcaraz is now ranked 11th in the world, which is astonishing when you consider that eight months ago, he was ranked outside the top 50. He has reached a level of balance in his game that rivals in his mid-twenties are nowhere close to. Imagining how good Alcaraz will be at that age should have a CAUTION label attached to it for everyone else on tour.

Already, when Alcaraz is at his best, even high-ranked opponents are rendered totally helpless. Nadal managed to edge him at Indian Wells, and I think Djokovic will be able to beat him by making his service games hell, but besides that? Alcaraz is running through everyone he plays, seemingly improving from tournament to tournament. In the space of weeks, people have gone from saying he could win a major in a couple years to saying he could win one this year.

You can say the hype is out of control, though that’s an opinion that gets harder to defend with every match he plays. Alcaraz is what the ATP have been craving since the Big Three got old, and there’s not much more to say than just sit back and enjoy the show as the next Golden Boy tears up the world.

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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