Hello tennis fans and welcome to “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and story lines from the world of men’s tennis.
Carlos Alcaraz may have started 2023 on the sidelines while recovering from injury, but he made his return to the ATP in emphatic fashion with a title at the Argentina Open where he defeated Cam Norrie 6-3, 7-5 in the final and, in the process, reminded us all of his immense talent and still growing potential.
This week for Inside The Lines, I’ll take a look back at the stellar 2022 Alcaraz enjoyed, a season that propelled him from tennis phenom to the world’s best male player, and I’ll also look ahead to the immense promise that he holds for men’s tennis.
Alcaraz’ rise in the tennis world over the past year has been nothing short of remarkable and he was without a doubt the player to watch in 2022 on the ATP Tour. The Spaniard was able to take his ranking from No. 32 in the world at the beginning of January all the way to becoming the No. 1 player in the world by year’s end.
His rise to the top of the rankings was even more impressive considering that Alcaraz was the youngest No. 1 in ATP history at 19 years and 4 months of age at the time.
Along the way to that stunning accomplishment, he captured five titles and it was a spectacular list of events to be sure. His victories last year included titles at the ATP 500 level in Rio de Janeiro, at the Masters 1000 events in Miami and Madrid (where he incredibly defeated Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back!) and of course Grand Slam success as well when he won the first Major of his young career at the US Open in September.
In that biggest accomplishment of 2022 at Flushing Meadows, Alcaraz survived three consecutive five-set matches to advance to the final. In the round of sixteen, he was down a break in the fifth against Marin Cilic before prevailing. In the quarter-final, his win over Jannik Sinner was one of the matches of the year and finished at nearly three in the morning after going the distance.
He then went five sets yet again against Frances Tiafoe in the semifinal before defeating Casper Ruud in the final where the No. 1 ranking in the world was hanging in the balance. Alcaraz clearly has no trouble in stepping-up in big pressure moments.
One of the few blips on his otherwise wildly successful breakout season on the ATP happened to be at the Omnium Banque Nationale in Montreal. Canadian tennis fans witnessed him fall at the hands of American Tommy Paul 6-7(4), 7-6(7) 6-3 in his opening match. This coming summer Alcaraz will make his Toronto debut in what promises to be one of the hottest tickets in town at the National Bank Open.
Something tells me he’ll be getting that first Canadian Masters 1000 victory this time around.
Tennis fans were eager to see how Alcaraz would come out of the gates in 2023 but hamstring and abdominal injuries hindered the start of his season and saw him sidelined for the first month and a half of the year. Many were hoping to watch him face Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open but that potentially compelling rivalry will have to wait a little longer to develop.
Instead, we saw Djokovic return triumphantly to Melbourne and capture his 10th Aussie Open crown and in the process re-assume the No. 1 ranking on the ATP from Alcaraz.
Should they both remain healthy, one has to imagine we’ll be seeing the two face each other several times over the course of the next few months. Though 16 years older, Djokovic is still playing like a far younger player and appears to have something to prove after missing many significant events in 2022.
Despite the considerable age gap with Alcaraz, their talent level compared to the rest of the ATP Tour seems to set them both apart from their peers when healthy.
Djokovic is certainly not going to willingly hand back the No. 1 ranking to Alcaraz though it could shift hands sooner rather than later. Should Alcaraz win the event this week in Rio de Janeiro, he’ll be tied with Djokovic with 6890 points apiece, though the Serbian will retain the top spot if it comes to a tiebreaker – whoever has the most points in the past twelve months at the Slams.
Winning the title in Buenos Aires this past week wasn’t the only piece of good news for Alcaraz, as he was also nominated for the Laureus Breakthrough of the Year Award where he is up against, among other nominees, fellow tennis player Elena Rybakina.
As we get closer to an inevitable post-Big Three world on the men’s tour, Alcaraz has the exciting game and competitive drive, not to mention marketing appeal, to draw new fans to the sport while also sustaining the existing ones. The fact that he receives plenty of comparisons to one of the members of that aforementioned trio doesn’t hurt either.
I vividly recall when a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal won the first hard court event of his career in Montreal at the Omnium Banque Nationale in 2005 against a 35-year-old Andre Agassi. Nadal’s passion, unrelenting energy and enormous skill with a tennis racquet captured everyone’s attention that year. What we witnessed from Alcaraz in 2022 felt similar in many ways.
Judging from what we’ve just seen in his first tournament of 2023, it seems that Alcaraz is intent on keeping the spotlight on himself for the foreseeable future. What he did at the US Open last summer was remarkable not only for the fine tennis he displayed, but also for the fact that many of us for the first time did not lament missing Federer, Nadal or Djokovic playing in the final of a Major. Alcaraz made us for a brief moment forget them or at least feel comfortable in not noticing their absence. To me that gives him a special quality that I’m eager to see more of.