By Giri Nathan
Carlos Alcaraz wasn’t supposed to have an interesting match this early on in this tournament. The 19-year-old was expected to leave rubble in his wake, the way he has all season. He’s the best player in the world right now, according to several other of the best players in the world, and he’s on a heater that might not end for a decade. Much was expected of him as the No. 6 seed at Roland-Garros…and there he was, getting booted in the second round. Carlitos! What are you doing? This is not what we expect from our GOAT-trajectory Spanish prodigies.
Because it can be fun to beat this raggedy comparison into the ground, let’s remember what young Rafa was up to during his age-19 trip to Paris. The year was 2005. It was his first-ever appearance in the main draw at Roland-Garros, and he was the No. 4 seed. He dropped just three sets en route to a title. One in the fourth round, to Sebastian Grosjean, a hair past his prime. One in the semifinal, to some guy named Roger Federer. And one in the final, to Mariano Puerta, who had been doping with the cardiac stimulant etilefrine, which would earn him an eight-year ban. In all, pretty light work for a young Rafa in clamdiggers. One mark of an enduring superstar is a clean, efficient first week. Despite a creaky start in his first-round match—it was his first match back after two weeks of rest for a sprained ankle—by the third set, Alcaraz had ramped up to his usual dominance, beating lucky loser Juan Ignacio Londero in straights. But on Tuesday, Alcaraz was taken to the limit by Albert Ramos Vinolas, a respectable 34-year-old clay-courter for sure, but several rungs below in the internal Spanish ladder. This should’ve been a straightforward chore. But Alcaraz was well off his game and had to fight off match point in the fourth, only to go down an early break in the fifth.
Eventually Alcaraz prevailed, producing two of the most outlandish shots of the year. While he won’t be as fresh as he might’ve liked for his next match, the 19-year-old can still take heart in recent history: He enters his third-round match 30–3 on the season. That’s territory that very few players have ever touched. He has nearly always found a way. On the other hand: The most recent of those three losses was pulled off by Sebastian Korda, his next opponent. The 21-year-old son of former world No. 2 Petr, the younger Korda is so fundamentally sound and physically suited for modern tennis that it’s almost hard to isolate any one aspect of his game for further review. Like a Berdych for the new era, Korda screams “solid,” and last week he reached a career-high No. 30 ranking. He has the 6-foot-5 frame and impeccable baseline technique to hang around in the top 20 for a long time. Whether he has the stuff to rise to the top of that pack, bumping elbows with Carlos, is still unclear. So far Korda has had a steady season, beating most of the players he should and only rarely the ones he shouldn’t. He’s also developed a strange habit of botching matches right at the cusp of victory. In three of his losses this year, he had served for the match. During what would have been a spectacular win over Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells, Korda served for the match two different times before blowing it.
Their first-round meeting at Monte-Carlo was instructive for both guys. After that three-set win, Korda said he was relieved to have not choked away another lead on another Spanish superstar. Alcaraz, for his part, kept this rare loss in perspective: “I mean, you have to live the loses as good as you can. I mean, it’s a lose; it’s not a die, you know.” Later he’d say that he “learned from that defeat” by Korda, that it set him up for a 10-match winning streak that netted him titles at Barcelona and Madrid, and has now extended to 12 at Roland-Garros. Will he learn how to take care of his early-round business in a more timely fashion, or will Korda be the first player to beat Carlos twice at a time when no one can figure out how to beat him at all?
Above: Alcaraz and Korda go at it in Monte Carlo last month, their last meeting. “It’s a lose, it’s not a die,” Carlitos said of his defeat by Sebi. They play again today at ~3:00 pm EST. (Getty)