With Rafael Nadal enjoying an incredible unbeaten start to the season, and Carlos Alcaraz perhaps the game’s most exciting rising star, this is an Indian Wells semifinal that no sports fan will want to miss.
The two Spaniards – at vastly different points in their respective career arcs, yet frequently compared – will go head-to-head for the second time on Saturday.
An interested viewer closely watching Carlos Alcaraz in Indian Wells… pic.twitter.com/GlhH2MNuAf— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) March 18, 2022
Alcaraz hopes to push his legendary countryman closer this time; when they played on Alcaraz’s 18th birthday in Madrid last May, Nadal humbled the youngster 6-1 6-2.
Alcaraz was then a wildcard ranked 120th. He is now a top 20 player, having risen more than 100 places in less than a year; his latest success was a first ATP 500 title in Rio de Janeiro in February.
Appearing considerably physically stronger in 2022 and gathering experience with each match, the teenager has stormed into his first Masters semifinal without dropping a set.
"It's tough to play against Rafa. But at the same time, I will enjoy the moment and the match,” said Alcaraz, moments after eliminating defending champion Cameron Norrie 6-4 6-3.
"Not everyday you play against your idol, so I'm gonna take experience in that match… I'm focused right now to play my best against Rafa and be able to take my chances.
"I remember that day (in Madrid) I played really, really nervous, but I think this time I train with him a couple of times. I know I will be more (prepared) how to play against him.
“I think now it's gonna be a little bit different this match, but obviously he can destroy me again, but I don't know what is going to happen."
While Alcaraz has built a 10-match winning streak, it pales in comparison to Nadal’s 19-0 record in 2022 – his best ever start to a season.
The fact he has notched such a milestone at age 35 is all the more astonishing, and now, after hoisting trophies at the Melbourne Summer Set, Australian Open and Acapulco, he is targeting a fourth career title at Indian Wells.
His progress to the final has been more laborious than his young rival.
Nadal trailed Sebastian Korda 5-2 in the third set of his opening-round match, and in Thursday’s quarterfinals, Nick Kyrgios served for the first set before Nadal eventually prevailed in three.
Nadal, now a 21-time major champion, is clearly overjoyed to be back competing at the highest level after an injury-marred 2021.
That, plus the confidence he has accrued from surviving a multitude of tough battles against quality opponents this year, is proving an unstoppable combination for opponents.
Will Nadal improve his record to a sparkling 20-0? Or will Alcaraz earn a statement victory to continue his own upward trajectory?
These questions frame a fascinating match-up between players who have been regularly compared, ever since Alcaraz began notching career milestones in an eerily similar manner to his illustrious countryman.
Nadal acknowledged those parallels as he prepared to take on a player almost half his age – whom he nevertheless affords enormous respect.
“I think he’s unstoppable in terms of his career,” Nadal said.
“He has all the ingredients: He has the passion. He’s humble enough to work hard. He’s a good guy. He reminds me a lot of things when I was a 17- or 18-year-old kid.
“I’m super happy even though it’s going to be a great rivalry for the next couple of months, without a doubt.
“It’s great, honestly, to have such a star from my country, because for the tennis lovers, we’re going to enjoy an amazing player fighting for the most important titles for the next, I don’t know how many years, a lot of years.”
Hopefully, for Nadal, just not quite yet.