A quick sprint to the right, a curving and looping forehand pass winner. Carlos Alcaraz has played this shot on countless occasions on the ATP Tour despite him being just a few days over 19. On Friday, he played one such stroke to become the first ever teenager to ever beat Rafael Nadal on clay court, reaching the semi-final of Madrid Masters.
Before this match, Nadal had a perfect 20-0 against teens on clay, including his win over Alcaraz in the 2021 Madrid second round – on the day he turned 18 – and victories over 2022 Madrid quarter-finalists Novak Djokovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime.
It was Alcaraz’s first win against his compatriot and idol, and he celebrated it by writing ‘what just happened’ on the camera. He also ended Nadal’s 25-match win streak against fellow Spaniards.
Alcaraz entered the contest with a 0-2 record against Nadal, but knew he had his chances given his opponent’s lack of match play. Nadal was out of action for six weeks nursing a rib injury, and arrived to Madrid with little to no preparation on clay.
The World No 9 came up 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 winner in a match that lasted two hours and 29 minutes. And even a twisted ankle early in the second set could not derail the wheels off the youngster who has been racing up the ranking ladder, picking up accolades on the way.
A month ago he won his first ATP 1000 title, in Miami. On Thursday, he became the youngster player to reach the quarterfinal in Madrid. And now he has a chance of becoming the only player to beat both Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the same clay-court event.
In the opening match of the day, World No 1 Djokovic came up with a straight-forward 6-3, 6-4 win over Hubert Hurkacz.
Alcaraz later joked that he will text former Argentine player David Nalbandian about how to get past Djokovic after beating Nadal. Nalbandian is famously the only player to have beaten the Big 3 - Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer - at the same tournament. Coincidentally, that was at the Madrid Open in 2007 (albeit, the tournament was played on indoor hard courts at the time).
But with Alcaraz in such a rich vein of form, and with the home crowd backing the Spaniard, another thrilling match will be expected.
A win to remember
“It means a lot to me, all the hard work that I put in every day paid off today to beat Rafa, beat the best player in history on clay, it means a lot to me,” said Alcaraz, who is the first teenager to defeat Nadal on a clay court.
“It affected me a lot the fall in the second set but when I lost the second, I went to the bathroom and I believed I was able to get back, I was able to do my best, try everything on court, fight until the last ball and I think it was the key.”
The first three games went against serve and lasted over 20 minutes before Alcaraz finally held for a 3-1 advantage. Nadal mustered just one more game in that set as Alcaraz snatched a commanding lead.
In the third game of the second set, Alcaraz took a tumble trying to retrieve a ball and he had a lengthy medical timeout at 1-2 to get his ankle taped. Replays showed Alcaraz had badly rolled his ankle.
The seventh seed got broken upon resumption of play as Nadal inched ahead 3-1, but then another interruption came related to someone in the crowd.
After a long pause, Nadal held and ran away with the set as Alcaraz looked visibly restricted in his movement.
Alcaraz took a toilet break and appeared to move better at the start of the decider, leaping to a 3-1 lead. It was all he needed to complete the win in two hours and 28 minutes and set up an exciting clash with Djokovic.
Alcaraz also became the third-youngest player to beat Nadal on any surface, behind only Borna Coric, 17, at 2014 Basel and Denis Shapovalov, 18, at 2017 Montreal.
‘Fantastic for our sport’
“Of course, I’m focusing on tomorrow. I will text (David) Nalbandian to see how he did it. I will fight and let’s see what happens tomorrow,” joked Alcaraz, referring to Miomir Kecmanovic’s coach David Nalbandian, who defeated both Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer on his way to the Madrid title in 2007.
Djokovic reached his seventh Madrid semi-final, easing past Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 6-4 to record a 30th career victory in the Spanish capital.
The world number one will face Alcaraz for the first time and heaped praise on the young Spaniard, having spent some time with him practicing earlier this week.
“I love to watch him play, as a lot of other players on the tour. He’s fantastic for our sport, no doubt. I think it’s great that we have a young player who is doing so well and giving a new fresh breath to the tennis world,” said Djokovic.
“Seeing that and knowing that he’s a very nice guy, very humble with good values, is a perfect combination.”
Djokovic started his quarter-final with a break and it was all he needed to grab the opening set in 33 minutes.
Hurkacz dropped serve in game five of the second set as Djokovic once again took control.
The Polish 12th seed saved two match points on his own serve at 5-3, forcing Djokovic to serve out the win. And the 34-year-old Serb had no trouble closing, moving into the final four with an 81-minute success.
Djokovic has not competed much in 2022 due to his vaccination status that has prevented him from playing in Australia or entering the United States.
His win on Friday was just his seventh of the year and he’ll be trying to make a second final of the season, having placed runner-up in Belgrade last month.
Djokovic received a walkover in the last 16 when Andy Murray pulled out with stomach illness.
Monte Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas squeezed past familiar foe Andrey Rublev 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 to record a tour-leading 27th match-win of the season.The 2019 Madrid runner-up edged ahead 5-4 in his head-to-head against Rublev and now awaits defending champion Alexander Zverev who defeated Auger-Aliassime 6-3, 7-5.
Novak Djokovic bt Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 6-4
Carlos Alcaraz bt Rafael Nadal 6-2, 1-6, 6-3
Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Andrey Rublev 6-3, 2-6, 6-4
Alexander Zverev beat Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-3, 7-5
(With AFP inputs)