Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals Milan | 9-13 Nov. 2021
How Alcaraz ‘Grew Up As A Player’ After Unforgettable Nadal Clash
Carlos Alcaraz receives an 18th birthday cake after his match with Rafael Nadal from Madrid TD Feliciano Lopez.

Carlos Alcaraz receives an 18th birthday cake after his match with Rafael Nadal from Madrid TD Feliciano Lopez. © Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour

Carlos Alcaraz’s 18th birthday celebration didn’t exactly go as planned. The teenager won just three games against Rafael Nadal in their second-round clash at the Mutua Madrid Open.

But despite the one-sided scoreline, the #NextGenATP Spaniard was all smiles in his post-match press conference after receiving the ultimate present from his childhood idol.

Playing the five-time champion on Manolo Santana Stadium, wild card Alcaraz stayed toe-to-toe with Nadal for the opening exchanges but wasn’t able to keep pace as the top seed got going. An abdominal injury early on jolted Alcaraz out of his rhythm, requiring a medical timeout, and the 13-time Roland Garros champion cruised to a 6-1, 6-2 victory. 

“I think I could have done more in this match, but at the end of the day, it’s Rafa,” Alcaraz reflected in his post-match press conference. “Playing against Rafa for the first time is never easy. The first or the hundredth time, it’s never easy. But honestly, just to be able to play against Rafa was super special.

“I think the next time we play it will be totally different. I will know more about how to play and how to carry myself on the court. I think this time I was too anxious to finish the points quickly. At some point I even forgot that I had Rafa across the net from me, and then he returned ball after ball. I could have been more patient. But it was an unforgettable experience for me that I will always have.”

The 18-year-old’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed by Nadal, who was generous with his praise of the teenager in his own press conference. But the top seed did more than just compliment Alcaraz’s forehands and backhands.

When asked to quantify Alcaraz’s potential for greatness, Nadal instead pointed to the teen’s work ethic and good character as his best attributes.

“I’ve spoken a few times when I’ve seen him at tournaments… I see a lot of great qualities in him already,” Nadal said. “For example when playing a match like today, he didn’t complain a single time and had a great attitude despite losing the way he did. In Australia, he had a 15-day quarantine, and he accepted it without complaint.

“When it’s time to train, every time I’ve seen him practice he has a great attitude and good energy. This is what I see from him on a day-to-day basis and I can see how he treats the people around him. To me, this shows that he has great character.”

Alcaraz, who also received a birthday cake from Nadal and tournament director Feliciano Lopez after the match, broke into a grin after hearing Nadal’s comments.

“For me it means a lot. For one of the guys who has been at the top for so long to laud you like this and say that you’re doing things the right way means a lot,” Alcaraz said.

“I’ve always said that Rafa is my childhood idol, and I am trying to follow in his footsteps. I never see Rafa make a bad gesture on court or complain, and these are things that can affect you on the court. I try to follow his example. I’m doing things the right way, and if I continue like this I think I can go down the right path.”

Despite the bittersweet ending, Alcaraz was determined to focus on the positives from his run in Madrid. The No. 120 player in the FedEx ATP Rankings claimed his maiden ATP Masters 1000 win in the previous round to set up the meeting with his favourite player, and he is eager for more matches like these against the top players.

“This match made me learn a lot, because I have to know how to manage the tough moments and know how to play against these kinds of players,” Alcaraz said.

“[These are] tough matches, tough players, and I have to learn how to play against them. I think if I could play more matches like this, I will grow up faster as a player.”