Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz will play a special match on Wednesday at the Mutua Madrid Open. On the Caja Mágica clay, the most intimidating court in the country, two generations of Spanish tennis will cross paths in what promises to be an unforgettable battle. On Alcaraz’s 18th birthday, the great hope of the next generation will experience a unique moment before the fans inside Manolo Santana Stadium.
Two Spanish former World No. 1s will be watching from the player boxes: Carlos Moyà, the 20-time Grand Slam champion’s coach, and Juan Carlos Ferrero, whose understudy is one of the biggest young talents on the ATP Tour, will oversee the highly anticipated match.
“It’s going to be a special match,” Moya admitted. “It is an encounter between the present, because Rafa is still the present and has been for many years, and the immediate future. I think that Alcaraz is going to be a great player. He’s already very good, although he’s still lacking that experience and he’s in the process of improving. It’s a natural generational succession.”
“To me it’s a generational clash” Ferrero said. “Rafa is very much alive, he’s playing at a very high standard, fighting for Grand Slams. I wouldn’t dare talk about a succession. It’s true that Carlos is the guy coming up the rear, not to replace anyone, but to try and do great things and play great matches. I don’t think any talk of Carlos succeeding Rafa is good for him. It’s added pressure for him. It’s of little use.
“I like to think that we have another very promising player. With his game and the way he handles things from match to match, his head-to-head with players, gives me confidence that he will be very good. But we have to take it step by step.”
How do you approach a match like that? How do you tackle the challenge? What preparations do you make for the difficulties a young man whose hunger knows no bounds may face?
“You go out on full alert,” Ferrero said. “Rafa already knows Carlos because we trained together in Australia. He had the chance to play a set and a half. He knows that Carlos is dangerous, he knows that he has to give it his all.
“Any active player is already familiar with a promising player when they come along, they study them. You know that he’s dangerous, but you also trust yourself. Rafa has the extra experience, which is more than enough to know how to play. Obviously he will think that Carlos is dangerous, but it is just another match for him.”
Moyà witnessed the arrival of the future king firsthand on the clay of Umag in 2003, when Nadal upset him at just 17 years old. Although the Mallorcan points out several differences between the two situations, there is certainly an interesting comparison to be made.
“I wasn’t Rafa in the sense that I didn’t have 20 Grand Slams. I didn’t have his ambition, his quality or his game. And Rafa was even younger than Alcaraz is. There was a significant difference; I knew Rafa well, we’d trained a lot together,” Moya said. “The respect that Alcaraz perhaps has for Rafa, since they haven’t shared many moments together — he hasn’t had contact with him — Rafa didn’t have that respect for me. We shared a lot of things and in that regard, I think that it is lost a little bit, spending time with someone, knowing them so well. But they are special matches for everyone. They are special matches in that there is extra pressure on both of them, and the one that handles it best will take the match.”
The fans have always supported Nadal at the Caja Mágica as if he were family and the Madrid faithful are now ready to show Alcaraz the same affection. It will be an opportunity to enjoy a special moment, the significance of which will only become apparent as the years pass.
“Rafa will not last forever, that’s life, unfortunately,” Moya said. “In a few years, I think Carlos will be one of the players in the fight for Grand Slams. Maybe they will meet in the final of a big tournament. Rafa has been at an extremely high level for many years and Carlos in one or two years may be perfectly ready to fight for those tournaments. But we’re in 2021, and at the moment, Rafa still has that experience and the game that we believe is good enough to fight for any tournament.”
“We know that Rafa is practically invincible on clay, but the biggest challenge will be trying to be stable mentally all the time,” Ferrero said of his pupil. “I think he has to make that his greatest strength tomorrow. We know that Rafa puts everything into every point. That’s what young players find the hardest, being 100 per cent focussed all the time. To him it’s a big motivation doing it here at home. His family is here and they haven’t seen him play for a long time. He’s very excited.”