It was another phenomenal tournament of ATP tennis. The men’s draw in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells was as spectacular as it could get. Taylor Fritz ultimately won the title, his first at the ATP 1000 level, becoming the first American men’s player to win Indian Wells since 2001. It was an incredible feat because Fritz did so with an injured ankle and against the best player on tour this year, defeating the previously undefeated Rafael Nadal in the final. It was a tall task, and while Nadal was battling injuries of his own, it didn’t take away from Fritz’s accomplishment because the mental fortitude that was needed to push through against Nadal was huge.
That wasn’t even the highlight of the tournament. By far, it was the semifinal matchup between Nadal and 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz. Spain vs. Spain. Legend vs. prodigy. Big GOAT vs. future GOAT. It was the most highly anticipated matchup, and it delivered. And because of that match, taking Alcaraz to win the French Open in May is worth an early buy.
Entering the match against Alcaraz, Nadal was on a 19-0 in 2022. At 35, he had won three tour titles, including the Australian Open for his 21st major to break the all-time Grand Slam title record, surpassing both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. The three titles were all on hard court, which isn’t even his best surface.
Alcaraz, meanwhile, had been taking the tennis world by storm since the 2021 U.S. Open where he advanced to the quarterfinals but had to retire mid-match against Canadian Felix Auger Aliassime because of injury. Since then, he has won the Next Gen ATP, nearly picked off a top 10 opponent in Matteo Berrettini in the Australian Open, won his first ATP 500 event in Rio, and has just been showing a newfound prowess that he hadn’t showcased before. Oh, and he’s only 18.
Alcaraz, a player who lost to Nadal not even one year ago in the Madrid Masters 6-1, 6-2, was just a +125 underdog to win this match. That’s how far Alcaraz has progressed.
What Alcaraz did well against Nadal
It was remarkable. Sure, there was some gusty wind and perhaps it played a role, but both players had to fight the same elements. The final score: 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, Nadal.
Nadal came out with the win, but Alcaraz played superbly for being just 18. What makes the Big 3 so special? They are good at executing nearly every shot available. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer all have a full bag of tricks that they can utilize to win a match on any surface. The problem with the younger players? The style of play has diminished to a baseline, groundstroke game. Alcaraz, however, who marks Federer as his idol, appears to have accepted the importance of bringing a full-court game in order to excel at the highest level.
With that style of play, by having variety and not just a baseline game, Alcaraz was able to push Nadal back behind the baseline to then use a drop shot, pull Nadal off the court to either side to then hit cross court, or hit Nadal with a lob. Full court means pushing a player front and back and side to side, and Alcaraz was able to do that.
The next step for Alcaraz
Alcaraz lost the third set to Nadal, but not because he lacked skill. He lost because he lacked experience. The next step of progression is knowing when to apply the pressure. Why is the Big 3 so great? They know how to apply the pressure when it matters most. Think of it as a game within a game. The set starts at 0-0 but a new game starts at 3-3, then again at 4-4, then again at 5-5 if it gets to that. The player that is serving first will always have the upper-hand, serving 4-3, then 5-4, then 6-5. That’s what happened here.
Nadal upped his aggression at 3-3, then forcefully at 4-3. Where Alcaraz was at fault was not anticipating it, and in continuing with his strategy, he found himself playing more defense. In order for him to reach the next level and defeat some of the best, Alcaraz has to be proactive with a game plan in the pressure spots of sets. He needs to up his aggressiveness with the serve and volley, or when on the receiving end, find a way to the net to end the point quickly.
Why Alcaraz is a good buy to win the French Open
In all transparency, I have a 16-1 ticket bought after Alcaraz won ATP Rio. I posted anything above 10-1 is playable.
If your book has anything above 10-1 for Alcaraz to win the French Open, I would grab it now.
— Pamela Maldonado (@pamelam35) March 20, 2022
Why? For one, Nadal may be injured. Late in his match against Alcaraz and then again during his final match against Fritz, Nadal called out the physio and doctor to get work done on his pec. In a recent interview, Nadal said that he’s had difficulty breathing, perhaps something to do with his ribs. “It’s like a needle all the time inside,” he said. If it is serious, it could affect Nadal’s clay court season.
Looking at the rest of the field, Djokovic, the world No. 1, has played just three matches in 2022. Austrian Dominic Thiem could make a return but has been out since June 2021. World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev is not very competitive on clay with a 15-21 record, and 2015 French Open champ Stan Wawrinka has been out since March 2021.
Comparing Alcaraz to others, I can confidently say that he’s passed the level of ability of No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 15 Diego Schwartzman. Even though Alcaraz has two clay-court titles, I would still say he’s unproven on clay because of the competitors he’s faced. Plus, his progression has happened on hard courts. We’ll find out exactly where he stands soon.
With clay court players making a return after a long delay, with Nadal’s health in question, and with Alcaraz improving his ranking (now No. 16) with the possibility of him continuing to improve, there’s a chance he could end up with a friendly draw.
The French Open isn’t until the end of May, but shop around and anything above 10-1 is worth a bet. When you buy futures this far out, it’s not because that wager “is a lock” to win but rather because the value may be lost. If Alcaraz continues to excel, his odds won’t be as bountiful come tournament time.