For a time, tennis fans were starting to miss watching Carlos Alcaraz compete.
After spectacularly winning the US Open and becoming world No.1 last September, Alcaraz played only 10 matches in the next five months.
An abdominal injury at the Paris Masters curtailed his 2022 season. He then missed Australian Open 2023, due to a hamstring injury sustained in practice.
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But since returning during February’s Latin clay-court swing, Alcaraz has been practically unstoppable.
A title in Buenos Aires and final in Rio de Janeiro were followed by an even more significant performance at Indian Wells – a title run that saw him wrest the world No.1 ranking back from Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic and fellow all-time great Rafael Nadal were inspirations for Alcaraz as the young Spaniard sought to reimpose himself on tour.
“Often when the best players have been out for a long time, they win their first tournament back,” Alcaraz wrote in a candid ‘Players’ Voice’ essay for Eurosport.
“I wanted to be one of those players.”
The 19-year-old has won 14 of 15 matches in 2023. He did not drop a set en route to the Indian Wells trophy, beating quality opponents including Felix Auger-Aliassime, Jannik Sinner and Daniil Medvedev in his final three matches.
His 71-minute, 6-3 6-2 dissection of the resurgent Medevdev – who was enjoying a three-tournament, 19-match winning streak – was especially resonant.
‘The way that I play, they love to watch’
There were moments during his Indian Wells campaign at which Alcaraz attained an almost absurd level.
This point against Auger-Aliassime, and this one against Sinner, saw crowds and commentators erupt while sending social media into a spin.
Alcaraz recognises his capacity to inspire awe – and enjoys it.
“I try to make the people enjoy watching tennis… I felt the love from the people. I think the US Open help me a lot to have a lot of people behind me, supporting me,” he said.
“But I would say, yes, the way that I play, they love to watch.”
Former Australian pro-turned-analyst Wally Masur has, like all tennis pundits, watched plenty of Alcaraz play during the teenager’s astonishingly rapid ascent.
The former world No.15 can see Alcaraz’s enthusiasm for competition shining through on the match court.
"You've got to be willing to defend. You've got to want to defend, you've got to actually enjoy it,” Masur told ausopen.com.
“I see that in Alcaraz. And Rafa and Novak have certainly got it (too). Because they're great athletes, it's almost like their athleticism is on display and they want to test themselves in those tough points and situations.
"What's amazing about it is how complete Alcaraz is at his age.”
Alcaraz earning praise
That ‘completeness’ is a significant reason why Alcaraz has generated such excitement among observers.
Of the many plaudits Alcaraz receives, one constant is that his game style blends the best elements of the Big Three – Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer.
Alcaraz is most often compared to Nadal – both Spaniards achieved similar milestones at almost identical ages – yet Nadal’s long-time coach, Toni Nadal, noted Alcaraz was a more complete player than his nephew at the same age.
Some tennis commentators have seriously debated whether Alcaraz could match the Grand Slam winning exploits of this legendary trio – all of whom own at least 20 major singles titles.
Djokovic described him as the future of men’s tennis. Famed coach Rick Macci predicted Alcaraz would win more than 10 Grand Slam titles by age 24. Seven-time major champion Mats Wilander declared Alcaraz “could turn out to be the single most important tennis player that we have ever had in our sport”.
Rather than worry about such commentary increasing pressure and expectation, Team Alcaraz has instead embraced it.
Alcaraz’s coach Juan Carlos Ferrero told The Tennis Podcast he believed his protégé was “only 60 per cent of his maybe top (level)”.
Alcaraz himself, in his Players’ Voice essay, declared: “I am ambitious and my goals are big, I'm not going to lie. My dream is to be one of the best in history.”
Masur was inclined to agree with Ferrero’s assessment, given the Spaniard – himself a major-winning former world No.1 – would have seen things from Alcaraz in practice nobody else was privy to.
"I've worked with players, and sometimes when you're on court with them… I remember a practice session with Nick Kyrgios in Darwin one afternoon, and he was in one of those moods where he was just lighting it up and playing doubles with Thanasi (Kokkinakis) and having fun. And I was like, 'wow',” Masur said.
“Sometimes you just see things on a practice court, as Ferrero would have seen with Alcaraz, where you're just like, 'woah'.
“If this starts to flow into his matches, no one's going to get close.”
The next frontier: Djokovic rematch
When Alcaraz won the US Open and rose to world No.1 for the first time, Djokovic was absent from the field in New York.
When Djokovic won the Australian Open and reclaimed the top ranking, Alcaraz had not participated.
And at Indian Wells, Alcaraz seized the title and the top ranking, yet again in Djokovic’s absence.
The game’s two most recent Grand Slam champions are like ships passing in the night, further removed from their one and only meeting in Madrid almost a year ago – an epic which Alcaraz claimed in a third-set tiebreak.
It is the match-up everyone wants to see when both compete during the upcoming European clay-court season, and beyond.
“Novak is one of the best players in the world. That's obvious. I will say that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” he said.
“I really wanted to play against Novak again.”
Masur recalls being courtside during the Australian Open 2023 final – where Djokovic won his 10th title with a straight-sets domination of Stefanos Tsitsipas – and marvelling at the Serb’s level.
He believes the timing is perfect for the second installment of the Alcaraz-Djokovic series, given this critical juncture of their respective careers.
"I was sitting there looking at the depth of shot and movement, certainly on that surface, and I was like, 'I don't know how you actually beat him',” Masur said of Djokovic, who turns 36 in May.
“This will be the big test for Alcaraz. We know Novak is a competitive beast. (Missing all those events) at this stage of his career, it's probably given him another year of motivation. All those months of not competing and travelling has probably freshened him up mentally, and made him pretty keen for the challenge.
"We know Alcaraz is going to get better as the years go by. We know Novak, given his age... you can't imagine he can carry this (high level) on for another three to five years.
"Where they meet and on what surface will be very interesting."