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From Carlitos to Alcaraz, episode 2 : The fastest ever man to reach world No 1
Carlos Alcaraz is the youngest man in history to be world No 1 and his ascent to the top was faster than anyone. From his first match in 2020, to his stunning US Open win, Simon Cambers examines how he hit the top, so fast. This is the second episode of Tennis Majors’ series on Carlos Alcaraz
2/6 : How Carlos Alcaraz went from his first foray on the Challenger Tour to the top of men’s tennis is the most incredible journey in the sport’s history. Read how the Spaniard reached key milestones every few months, from the first win over Albert Ramos Viñolas to the 2022 US Open title
As Carlos Alcaraz was winning the US Open, Roger Federer was sitting at home in Switzerland, watching on TV, having already decided that he would soon be announcing his retirement.
If Federer had been in any doubt about the wisdom of his choice, which he had yet to make public at that stage, seeing Alcaraz tearing around the court at break-neck speed might have been enough to convince him that he was doing the right thing.
“It’s true when you are hurt like I have been and now you’re in rehab, you watch this, you’re like: ‘How did I do it? How do they do it?'” Federer told a small group of British reporters at the Laver Cup last month.
Federer was as impressed as anyone by what Alcaraz did in New York, a win that made him the first man in history to top the tennis world rankings before the age of 20. He’s also done it just two and a half years after playing his first ATP Tour match, the fastest ever ascent to No 1.
Youngest men to become world No 1
|Carlos Alcaraz||19 years, 4 months, 7 days – 2022|
|Lleyton Hewitt||20 years, 8 months, 23 days – 2001|
|Marat Safin||20 years, 9 months, 24 days – 2000|
|John McEnroe||21 years, 15 days – 1980|
|Andy Roddick||21 years, 2 months, 4 days – 2003|
|Bjorn Borg||21 years, 2 months, 17 days – 1977|
|Jim Courier||21 years, 5 months, 24 days – 1992|
|Pete Sampras||21 years 8 months – 1993|
|Jimmy Connors||21 years, 10 months, 27 days – 1974|
|Rafael Nadal||22 years, 2 months, 15 days – 2008|
Alcaraz the fastest man to world No 1
Alcaraz is not the youngest man to win a slam title, however. In fact, he only just squeezes into the top 10. Michael Chang, who was 17 years and three months old when he won the French Open in 1989, tops a list, which includes Boris Becker (twice), Mats Wilander (twice), Bjorn Borg (twice), Nadal and Pete Sampras.
Chang is the only one of them not to go on to become world No 1.
Alcaraz has also done it just two and a half years after playing his first ATP Tour match, the fastest ever ascent to No 1, which, considering he couldn’t play on Tour for five months in 2020 because of the Covid-19 lockdown, is some achievement.
Federer tried to sign up the Spaniard for his farewell at the Laver Cup last month but was told, very politely, that Alcaraz needs to rest. The 19-year-old would have loved to be there, to see his idol Federer, but his team advised him not to over-stretch himself. It’s advice Federer, a master with his scheduling in later years, would have approved of.
The next fastest man to No 1 was Marat Safin, who took just over three years from playing his first ATP Tour match to hitting the top of the rankings. By contrast, Rafael Nadal took more than six years and Federer himself needed five and a half years. Andy Roddick, at just over three and a half years, was third fastest behind Alcaraz and Safin.
Federer was a positive veteran at 22 when he first became world No 1. Alcaraz has hit the top after less than two full years on Tour.
Alcaraz landmarks are incredible :
- Alcaraz earned his first ranking points in April 2019 ;
- Alcaraz broke into the top 500 on September 16 that year ;
- Alcaraz won his first match on February 18, 2020, in Rio;
- Alcaraz made the top 100 on May 24, 2021;
- His first ATP 250 title came in Umag in July 2021 ;
- Alcaraz hit the top 50 on September 13, 2021;
- Alcaraz picked up a first ATP 500 title in Rio in February 2022, the younger to do so ;
- Alcaraz won his first Masters 1000 in Miami the following month ;
- Alcaraz made the top 10 on April 25, 2022
- Alcaraz broke into the top five on July 25, 2022.
How did he do it? Let’s see.
First ATP Tour match: February 2020, Rio de Janeiro
Alcaraz had won three straight ITF titles when he arrived in Rio de Janeiro in February 2020. He had signalled his talent the previous year when he beat Jannik Sinner in a Challenger in 2019, aged 15, so perhaps it was no surprise that he should hit the ground running on the ATP Tour.
His first-round opponent was Albert Ramos-Vinolas, then ranked No 41 and a former top 20 player who had reached the Monte-Carlo Masters final in 2017. The left-hander had the first close-up look of Alcaraz on Tour and he was his first victim, beaten 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 by the youngster.
“I will remember Rio forever,” Alcaraz said at the time, quoted on the ATP Tour’s website. “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.” The match finished took three hours, 37 minutes and finished at 3am.
It was an early indication of just how clutch Alcaraz is in big situations. Ramos-Vinolas remembers the match well.
From the first point, I thought he was really good, because I saw the ball speed was really fastAlbert Ramos-Vinolas
“I remember early, in the beginning of the match, from the first point, I thought he was really good, because I saw the ball speed was really fast,” Ramos-Vinolas told Tennis Majors.
No one knew, at that stage, how good Alcaraz would be, except, perhaps, his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, who started coaching him in 2018.
“I didn’t know exactly how fast it would be,” Ramos-Vinolas said. “I saw the power, the movement and also he was really explosive running, jumping and everything.
“He’s really fast, his ball speed is high and also in the moment that he’s close to lose, he plays better and better. This is something that just true champions do. I think he’s one of them.”
Alcaraz is already 30-14 in deciding sets in ATP Tour matches and when it goes to a deciding-set tiebreak, he’s perfect at 8-0. Those are champion stats.
Covid break may have helped Alcaraz
Alcaraz lost to Federico Coria, then ranked No 116 in the next round but with Indian Wells and Miami around the corner, he seemed ready to break through, even then. That was when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the tennis Tour stopped for five months.
It’s amazing to think that he might have hit the top even sooner, had the pandemic not struck. And then again, maybe not being in the spotlight for those few months helped him hone his game away from the spotlight, ready to unleash it on the world when the Tour resumed in August 2020.
He won three Challenger Tour events in the rest of the year and when 2020 ended, he was ranked No 138.
Now I am stronger and I am capable of maintaining my best level over a prolonged period of time.Carlos Alcaraz to Tennis Majors
At the end of 2020, Alcaraz was voted Newcomer of the Year on the ATP Tour. In an interview with Sasa Ozmo for Tennis Majors in December 2020, he outlined the physical work he was doing with Juan Carlos Ferrero at his academy.
“We have been working on my fitness pretty hard and I am feeling a huge change in that regard,” he said. “Now I am stronger and I am capable of maintaining my best level over a prolonged period of time. And yes, the serve has also been a focus and I think I have made progress in that department. We have worked on every aspect of the serve; balance, my ball toss, how to control the direction of the serve better… Serve is something that I will keep on working.”
Wins first title in Umag, 2021
Alcaraz served notice of his growing game when he qualified for the Australian Open in 2021 and made round two. He played Rafael Nadal for the first time in Madrid that year and though he won just three games, he received some advice from Spain’s greatest ever player. “After the match, he wished me a good birthday,” he said. “He said to me, continue to work hard.”
At this stage, Alcaraz was thought of as another clay-court expert, a slightly lazy characterisation for someone with his all-round game, from his power off the ground to touch on the drop shot and willingness to come forward. However, his first title did come on clay, in Umag, that year.
As his final forehand flew past Richard Gasquet for a winner, the TV commentator said: “the first of what should be many, many titles”. How prescient that comment was.
It must have been a strange feeling for Gasquet, who as a 18-year-old stunned Roger Federer in Monte-Carlo in 2005. “He’s playing unbelievable,” he said. “He’s only 18… I just couldn’t play at his level and his intensity. He played well, very solid. He’s a great player.”
Alcaraz was the youngest Spaniard to win a title since Nadal won Sopot at 18 in 2004. The following year, Nadal won his first slam title at the French Open.
The Ferrero effect: Talent, experience and calmness combined
Juan Carlos Ferrero was a great player but he never gave the impression he might turn into a great coach. However, having set up his own academy, Ferrero found Alcaraz in 2018 and together the pair set about making history.
It helped that former world No 1 Ferrero (in 2003) still hit the ball great; at the Laver Cup in 2022, Federer revealed an anecdote in which he explained how he had practised with Alcaraz at Wimbledon one year, when Alcaraz was playing the junior event.
“I thought he played well,” Federer said. “It was good practice, whatever, just another warm-up, I think it was. And Juan Carlos was there. I was more excited to see him obviously because he’s my guy.
“Then the next day, two days later or next day, on my day off, very often when you practice with somebody, you practice again because you just have, and if the practice was good it’s just simple to call again and say, Do you want to do it again?
“But I said, I want to hit with Juan Carlos, not with Carlos, just because I would like to practice with him and I’m super laid back in practice, anyway. I ended up playing with Ferrero. It was great. He didn’t miss a ball. He could still be on Tour. I’m really happy for him also in particular that they are being this successful.”
That ability and his general experience, not to mention his seemingly unflappable nature on the sidelines gave Alcaraz someone he could look to for strength during matches and for knowledge between them.
US Open 2021: The big breakthrough
For all his talent, Alcaraz had yet to do anything at a Grand Slam event. Nadal won the French Open at 19 so he was facing a race against time.
He began the US Open by beating Cameron Norrie but it was in the third round, when he beat then world No 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas in a final-set tiebreak, that he announced himself to the world. Tsitsipas was stunned.
“I felt like he played the fifth set completely — the way he played the first set basically, careless, going for every single shot,” he said. “I have never seen someone play such a good fifth set, honestly.”
Alcaraz ended up making the quarter-finals only for his body to give out after a set and a half against Felix Auger-Aliassime, but the die had been cast.
Learning experience in Paris, then wins Next Gen Finals
There was one moment of vulnerability, though, and it came at the Paris Rolex Masters in early November, when he lost 20 of the last 21 points in losing to Hugo Gaston.
It was his first real experience of having everyone in a stadium against him and it was a learning experience.
“My first time in this situation was not easy for me, it hurt me a lot not to know how to deal with that pressure but like everything in life, we fall but we get up and move on,” he said. “The most important thing is to learn from these situations and I am sure that I will come back stronger and with lessons learned.”
Winning the Next Gen Finals has been a springboard for many players, including Stefanos Tsitsipas and Jannik Sinner, as well as finalists like Daniil Medvedev. That feeling of beating your peers stands a player in good stead.
So when Alcaraz beat Sebastian Korda in the final to win the title, he gave himself a confidence boost that would spill over into the following year, more, perhaps than anyone expected.
Wins Rio for second career title
Returning to Rio in 2022, he won his second career title, beating Diego Schwartzman in the final. A semi-final showing in Indian Wells, where he pushed Nadal to three sets, emphasised his improvement, but it was in Miami where he thrilled the crowds by winning the biggest title of his career, taking out Tsitsipas again along the way and Casper Ruud in the final.
Wins Madrid, beating Nadal, Djokovic, Zverev back to back
He served notice of his intent by winning Barcelona but it was Alcaraz’s efforts in Madrid which really made the world sit up and take notice. First he beat Nadal – on clay in Spain – almost sacrilege – then he took out Djokovic in a final-set tiebreak and finally, saw off Zverev in the final to collect another Masters 1000 title.
Zverev was quick to suggest that Alcaraz was the “best player in the world right now”. Crucially, Alcaraz agreed: “I think I am ready to win a Grand Slam,” he said. “I think I am ready to go for it.”
“It is great for tennis that we have such a new superstar that is going to win so many Grand Slams, that is going to be world No 1 and I think is going to win this tournament many more times,” he said.
Favourite for the French Open
Incredibly, Alcaraz went into the French Open as one of the favourites, despite the presence of Djokovic and Nadal, who had won the tournament 13 times.
The pressure must have been immense and he almost lost in the second round to Ramos-Vinolas, only to somehow escape in five sets. When he lost in the quarter-finals to Zverev, he was disappointed but amazingly upbeat. “I would say I’m not far away to reach a semi-final or be able to win a Grand Slam,” he said. “Just take the lesson in these kind of matches. I would say I have the level, I have the confidence to win a Grand Slam.”
Stuns world by winning US Open
Wimbledon was tough for Alcaraz as he went out to Jannik Sinner in the fourth round and when he arrived at the US Open, not too many people believed he could win the title, even though Djokovic was not there and Nadal was carrying an injury. For all his efforts in the previous year, he had still not gone past the quarter-finals of a slam so he was talking the talk in suggesting he could win a slam.
It didn’t come easy. He went the distance against Marin Cilic in the fourth round; needed five sets again to beat Sinner in a mini-classic and then, in the semi-finals, he outlasted Frances Tiafoe in another match which made the likes of Federer wonder how that kind of movement is possible.
In the final, despite tiredness, he was too good for Ruud and he won his first slam title, a win that made him No 1 and completed an incredible journey which began in 2020, with that first ATP Tour win in Rio, if not many years beforehand.
You can dive in to the stats of how he won that final, how he lives every moment as if it’s match point, how he goes for broke when down, how he never lets his shoulders drop, how he never lets his opponent dominate. But in the end, it’s that innate talent, natural speed and incredible attitude which got him over the line.
Perhaps Ferrero, who believes his man is only at 60 percent potential – Patrick Mouratoglou believes he’s 80 percent there – is the best-placed to explain.
Ferrero: “In important moments, he always tries to go for it”
“Since the moment that I started with him, I saw some things that were different than the other guys at his age,” he said at the time. “I am still seeing it on the court. In important moments, he always tries to go (for it). This is one of the more difficult things in tennis, even in his first Grand Slam final.
“He’s a great competitor. He’s there. He’s trying all the time. We could see it the last matches, even against Cilic, Sinner, or Tiafoe, that he never gave up. He always wanted to push and try to stay on the match.”
A great addition to our sport, a great star in makingNovak Djokovic on Carlos Alcaraz
At the Laver Cup last month, Djokovic said he was in awe of what Alcaraz has achieved.
“I congratulate Alcaraz for winning US Open,” he said. “He did it in an incredible fashion, with three or four five-set matches in the tournament. He’s 19 years old and already No 1 in the world.
“I mean, it’s quite amazing what he has achieved so far. He’s, I think, a great addition to our sport, a great star in making. Well, he’s already realised the Grand Slam champion, so we can’t speak about him in the future, because he’s already present.”
As Ramos-Vinolas said, looking back to that first match. He’s a champion.