Argentinian Facundo Bagnis, ranked at No. 100 in the world, is not a man regularly tapped for Wimbledon glory. But he’s also not used to the treatment he received in Miami on Friday afternoon.
With just 23 minutes of his second round game, Bagnis was already a set and had barely gained a point. He didn’t play badly. He just dealt with the subtle drop shots and lightning-fast forehands of Carlos Alcaraz – the 19-year-old from Murcia in southern Spain who is quickly becoming tennis’ newest apex predator.
“He will be one of the best players of all time,” said Mats Wilander, Eurosport expert and seven-time Slam champion, this week. “If Alcaraz is in charge of the rally, he has so many more options than any tennis player I’ve ever seen, except Roger Federer.”
Let’s outline some facts. When Alcaraz won his first Slam title in New York last September, he became the youngest number 1 in world history, beating Lleyton Hewitt’s record by a full 16 months. Two weeks ago at Indian Wells he set another milestone by scoring his 100th tour-level win after just 132 games – the second-fastest of all time behind John McEnroe.
With all these achievements, it may seem strange to you that we don’t talk about Alcaraz all the time. One might expect that his Calvin Klein lingerie campaign – in which he sports the most muscular teenage figure since young Rafael Nadal – is just the beginning of a spate of posters and commercials.
However, one important thing is missing from Alcaraz’ CV. Yes, he’s already established himself as the best young prospect to emerge in 15 years. Yes, he’s almost unbeaten this season (losing just one game to Britain’s Cameron Norrie in Rio a month ago). But for his No. 1 ranking to feel genuine, he has yet to take on one of the dominant forces of recent times – either Nadal or Novak Djokovic – as they rev up and rumble at a Grand Slam event.
Tennis needs a Madison Garden-style showdown. It takes a belt handover, a heavyweight collision that eliminates all the bells and whistles of the tour and puts the big boys on stage together. It takes a moment to say “The king is dead, long live the king”. And for all Alcaraz’s ability to tease the base (Bagnis eventually got on the scoreboard before going down 6-0, 6-2), he doesn’t have that opportunity just yet.
In Nadal’s case, it’s because the French Open winner has been no more than an occasional visitor to the match court for the past nine months. It’s different with Djokovic. The fact that he and Alcaraz have only played once – and that on the unusually high clay courts of Madrid last May – is a curious quirk of tennis’ recent narrative. They are like a pair of positive magnets that constantly repel each other.
Djokovic suspended the US Open, Indian Wells and this week’s event in Miami because of his tough stance on Covid (combined with US immigration’s continued demand for vaccination certificates). Alcaraz had to skip the Australian Open after a thigh strain. Every time one of them disappears, the other inevitably raises the trophy.
While the lag feels frustrating, an optimist might say the excitement is building nicely. The payout is likely to be made on the clay courts of Monte Carlo, Madrid or Rome. But even then, you really want to see Alcaraz fighting with Djokovic or Nadal over the blue ribbon distance: best-of-five sets in Paris, London or New York.
That would be the real test of endurance and would fulfill a point McEnroe has often made: for the succession to feel real, you want the next tennis champion or champions to take over the old regime of Djokovic and Nadal (Federer is already closed). late) and defeat her in hand-to-hand combat rather than simply inheriting her mantle due to age or injury.
In the case of Alcaraz, Friday’s sparkling performance against Bagnis only underscores his status as a runaway favorite to defend his title in Miami next weekend. And yet, until he meets one of the two men with real locker room power, it’s impossible to know if he’s a flat-track bully or the new emperor of tennis.