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Meet the new boss? At 19, Carlos Alcaraz beat Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev

Carlos Alcaraz hits a return to Novak Djokovic on his way to a semifinal win at the Madrid Open tennis tournament. Alcaraz went on to win the tournament, moving him higher in the world's top 10.
Manu Fernandez
Carlos Alcaraz hits a return to Novak Djokovic on his way to a semifinal win at the Madrid Open tennis tournament. Alcaraz went on to win the tournament, moving him higher in the world's top 10.

When Carlos Alcaraz saw Rafael Nadal leaving the court at the Madrid Open Friday, he did what he's done countless times before: stood and cheered. But there was one big difference. Alcaraz had just beaten Nadal for the first time, bouncing his longtime idol and fellow Spaniard from the tournament.

The victory was quickly seen as a defining moment for Alcaraz, with tournament organizers sharing an old photo showing Nadal posing with the young fan who would grow up to defeat him.

Alcaraz then put an exclamation mark on the achievement by winning the tournament. To do so, he outplayed three of the world's top five players — becoming the youngest player to accomplish that feat at one event since the ATP Tour started in 1990.

Like other records Alcaraz has set in his young career, his latest feat points to where he could be headed: Novak Djokovic, the previous record holder, was 20 when he beat Roger Federer, Nadal, and Andy Roddick in 2007, when they were the world's No. 1-3 players, respectively, at a tournament in Montreal.

Alcaraz turned 19 on Thursday

Here's how he spent the next few days:

  • Friday: defeated world No. 4 Nadal in three sets
  • Saturday: defeated world No. 1 Djokovic in three sets
  • Sunday: defeated world No. 3 Alexander Zverev in two sets
  • Afterward, Alcaraz said it felt great — and he said he's ready for more.

    "I would say this is my best week ever," Alcaraz said. "I mean, I beat two of the best players in history, beating Zverev in the final, a great player as well, No. 3 in the world."

    Alcaraz is often called by his nickname, Carlitos. But the young man owned Madrid's clay courts this past week, dominating points with his forehand and winning rallies with fearless creativity and a lethal drop shot.

    To close out Nadal, he rushed the net on match point — a little-used sentence in the tennis world, due to Nadal's shot-making skills — and then landed a pinpoint winner in the corner after Nadal nearly won the point.

    Here are few more things you should know about the young star:

    Alcaraz isn't sneaking up on anyone

    The sports world is prone to hype. But Alcaraz is widely seen as one of the most exciting and talented players to emerge in men's tennis in years.

    "Right now, you are the best player in the world," Zverev said on the court after Sunday's match. He jokingly added, "Even though you're still five years old, you're still beating us."

    Alcaraz is currently the world's No. 6 player, rising three spots this week after adding nearly 1,000 points to his ATP ranking. He has ascended on the strength of a gaudy 28-3 record in match play so far in 2022.

    At 19, Alcaraz is the youngest player to win five ATP Tour titles since Nadal, who was 18 when he hit the mark in 2005. Four of those championships have come in 2022 — the most among all players.

    Many tennis fans were introduced to Alcaraz when he blazed onto the scene at last fall's U.S. Open, reaching the quarterfinals. But after vanquishing Stefanos Tsitsipas and Peter Gojowczyk in five-set matches, the 18-year-old to retired midway through his next match.

    Last month, Alcaraz became the youngest men's champion of the Miami Open — after again beating Tsitsipas.

    Those congratulating him included Nadal — who had beaten Alcaraz at Indian Wells in March — and tennis legend Billie Jean King.

    What's next: a showdown in Paris

    The Madrid tournament has long served as a French Open tuneup, helping pros acclimate themselves to playing on clay courts. The major tournament starts in Paris later this month, and Roland-Garros organizers are eagerly awaiting the new dynamic Alcaraz's arrival would bring.

    Nadal, Zverev and Djokovic all made it to the semifinals of last year's French Open, where Djokovic eventually beat Stefanos Tsitsipas for the title. But for now, all eyes are on Alcaraz.

    "Carlos Alcaraz gets the biggest clay title of his career," Roland-Garros announced on Twitter, after the Spaniard won the Madrid Open.

    "For now," it added in a follow-up message.

    Alcaraz is skipping the Italian Open to rest his ankle, which he rolled during his quarter-final match in Madrid.

    He'll always be a favorite to win it all, Nadal says

    Nadal defeated Alcaraz at last year's Madrid Open. As this year's tournament started, Nadal said that Alcaraz no longer has to look up to him, because he's now reaching the sport's heights.

    "When you are young, and when you are very good, the process is faster than the normal people," Nadal said. "So he's not a normal guy, like Novak was not a normal guy, like Roger was not a normal guy, and probably [I] was not a normal guy."

    From now on, Nadal said, Alcaraz will be seen as a favorite in every tournament he plays in.

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.