It is meant as a compliment of considerable proportions. Of course it is. It isn’t everyone who is anointed with the label of being, “the next Rafa Nadal.”
That is the tag that has been hung on Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spaniard who entered the U.S. Open as the fourth-ranked men’s player in the world. He is doing his best to neither bask in the reflected glow of his countryman nor allow the comparison to an immortal become a choke collar the way it so often can in pro sports.
“I could say it’s a bit of pressure but I try not to think about it,” Alcaraz said following Tuesday’s 7-5, 7-5, 2-0 (ret) first-round victory over Sebastien Baez inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I don’t consider myself not, ‘The next.’ ”
But if things break correctly for the teenager competing in this diluted draw that is missing injured second-ranked Alexander Zverev and sixth-ranked Novak Djokovic — and from which Stefanos Tsitsipas was eliminated in a shocking upset on Monday while dropping the first 11 games of the match — Alcaraz surely could emerge as the next U.S. Open champion.
If he could get by the original Nadal in a projected semifinal matchup, that is. No pressure.
“I think I’m No. 4 right now, so I kind of play in the moment, not as the next player or the next generation,” said Alcaraz. “I’m just trying to do my best fighting against the best players in the best tournaments.”
Both competitors in the day’s opening match were under duress from the elements in the heat and humidity in Queens. No roof for the afflicted. No shade for the athletes.
“I’m really happy to get through with the conditions. It was a really tough match with a horrible end,” said Alcaraz, who made 47 unforced errors as opposed to smacking 32 winners against his 21-year-old foe, who could not make it to the finish line. “The heat was really tough and the humidity was really bad.“It was very tough. The conditions surprised me. But you have to handle the moment and be able to [make decisions] on how to play the points. Like I say, it was really, really tough..”
Alcaraz does seem on the cusp of greatness after becoming the youngest player to win an ATP 500 tournament in Rio and the youngest to win a Masters 1000 event in Miami. He also added a championship in Madrid.
He is a young man in a hurry who will face another Argentinian, 78th-ranked Federico Coria in Round 2, but in not too much of a hurry to smell the roses. By the way, the rose is the official flower of New York State. You’re probably not going to get that kind of information on the ESPN telecast from Darren Cahill.
“I’m just trying to enjoy these moments in the best stadiums,” Alcaraz said. “I just enjoy.”
This has been a strange Grand Slam season on the men’s side. Nadal, Djokovic and Open defending champion Daniil Medvedev all entered only at Roland Garros. Nadal won the French Open for his 22nd career major, leapfrogging Djokovic, whom he defeated in the quarterfinals.
Djokovic was barred entry to the Australian Open and to the U.S. for this tournament because of his status as unvaccinated. Medvedev was not permitted to play at Wimbledon, when the tournament barred players from Russia and Belarus as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
So there’s kind of a vacuum at the top, kind of a void following the Big Three Era even though Nadal — who has been limited since withdrawing from Wimbledon with an abdominal issue following his quarterfinal defeat of Taylor Fritz — and Djokovic would be considered favorites any time they enter an event.
There appeared to be room at the top for Fritz, the 24-year-old southern Californian who entered the Open as the highest-seeded American. But the 10th seed flamed out spectacularly Monday on the grandstand court in losing a four-setter to qualifier Brandon Holt, who carries another tag. That would be, “Tracy Austin’s son.” There’s a fine coming if you fail to add that modifier.
“It feels awful,” Fritz said after the match. “I feel like an idiot thinking I could win this thing, win the U.S. Open. I can’t go out in a match like that. It’s awful.”
It is most certainly not idiotic to believe that Alcaraz could win this event. It’s still somewhat of a long shot, but hardly a fantasy. And if he does, he will do so as the first Carlos Alcaraz, not the next Rafa Nadal.
For this is a young man who is making a name for himself.