There was a hint of exasperation last week when Rafael Nadal was asked, again, about his young compatriot Carlos Alcaraz.
‘It will be better, even if it’s interesting, if you stop comparing him to me,’ said the Spaniard at the Italian Open.
‘We cannot be thinking all the time about how I was and how he is today.
Carlos Alcaraz has drawn many comparisons to all-time great and compatriot Rafael Nadal
‘He is what he is and he’s fantastic, and probably in 2004 I would not say I was fantastic but I think I was quite good too.’
While the two are different styles of player, Nadal knows full well that the comparisons are inevitable.
It was just after his 19th birthday that he exploded on the scene, running through the big clay court events en route to his first French Open title, which was actually in 2005.
Alex Zverev (R) joked Alcaraz is ‘five years old’ after losing to the starlet at the Madrid Open
Alcaraz has done something similar, surging to such an extent that he finds himself the bookies’ marginal favourite for Paris next week, in light of Nadal’s uncertain physical condition.
The teenager’s achievements of recent months — he has won three of his last four tournaments and beaten four of the top five players — are very much an established quantity.
Less known is how he has quietly sprung from the hotbed of tennis that is south east Spain, having grown up in Murcia as one of four brothers. His father, also Carlos, was head coach at one of the city’s tennis clubs.
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Among those who encountered Alcaraz during his development were two Brits – current GB No 12 Billy Harris and prominent coach Dan Kiernan, who runs the international SotoTennis Academy 300 miles further down the coast.
It tells you a lot about Alcaraz, and why there is so much fuss about him, that both recall him bringing two great players to mind: Nadal and Roger Federer.
Harris, from the Isle of Man, has played a lot at the lower-tier Futures level and came up against him in early 2020, at a tournament being staged at Nadal’s tennis complex in Mallorca.
He even had a match point against the coming superstar, before losing 7-6 in a third set tiebreak.
‘It was the intense concentration on every single point that reminded me of Nadal,’ he says.
Billy Harris faces Edan Leshem in the ITF Great Britain F8 final on May 15
‘He never got down on himself. I was gutted afterwards but at the same time you knew he would be going straight to the Challengers and then on the main tour.
‘We all knew he was this junior who was starting to win everything. I guess when someone turns up with Juan Carlos Ferrero as their full-time coach at 16 you know there must be something special about him.’
Ferrero is the former French Open champion who had a brief spell as world No 1 in the early 2000s. Since 2018 Alcaraz has been based at his eponymous academy near Alicante.
‘I actually played really well that day,’ says Harris.
‘Ferrero was sitting at the back of the court telling him what to do, you just kind of expect coaching to happen in Spain so it didn’t really bother me.
‘I had a short forehand on match point but hit it long.
‘He just moved differently to anyone I had seen before, he was so fast and could get to everything.
‘I remember these thighs of his bulging out of his shorts, his legs were very strong and quick.
‘You felt like he had every shot. He could slice it, drop shot, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, which is unusual at this level.
‘His serve wasn’t that good at that point but you felt the pressure on every return.
‘It was a sort of similar feeling to when I had played Daniil Medvedev a couple of years earlier in a Futures, you could tell they had something different.’
Harris remembers playing World No 2 Daniil Medvedev during the Russian’s youth career
Like Harris, Kiernan speaks of a player who had a reputation of being a well-mannered and focused teenager, lacking arrogance despite it already being apparent he was heading for great things.
‘There was a bit of an aura about him. It was a bit like on a smaller scale when I was a player and the young Federer was coming through,’ says Kiernan, now 42.
‘Everyone in the locker room would stop and watch Roger’s matches. A lot of people were watching Carlos practise, he was already incredibly professional in the work he was doing.’
Kiernan, from the north east but long based in Sotogrande, would see him around events in southern Spain where his own players were competing. He was also there in Mallorca when Alcaraz won those consecutive Futures weeks at 16.
He said: ‘He was maybe already around top 100 level and I actually think he would have got quicker to where he is now had it not been for the pandemic. He had everything and was a very dynamic mover.
‘It’s one thing being able to volley and drop shot like he can and it’s another knowing when to do it, but he already understood that.
‘I knew Juan Carlos when he was a player and he was quite similar — polite and not arrogant, no airs and graces, but they kept themselves largely to themselves.
19-year-old Alcaraz beat Zverev in straight sets (6-3, 6-1) to win the Madrid Open
‘That is the Spanish way in tennis — get your head down, work hard and fight for every point. It’s one reason why it is such a great place to develop, and not just because of the clay and being able to play outdoors year round.
‘There are so many tournaments and playing opportunities, such a volume of players and it’s a big country. When Andy Murray was 12 everyone in GB was talking about him.
‘Here you can develop more at your own pace and you don’t need to go off travelling chasing ranking points.
‘Carlos is the same age as Emma Raducanu but in a very different situation to her when she suddenly won the US Open — he is ready now to win a Slam and be No 1.’
Hence why Nadal and Co are having to field questions about him.