MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Carlos Alcaraz had not even played a Grand Slam match when Toni Nadal, the uncle and longtime coach of Rafael Nadal, anointed him the successor of his illustrious nephew.
Brushing aside the hype, the 17-year-old Alcaraz made quick work of his first-round opponent at the Australian Open on Tuesday, defeating Dutch qualifier Botic Van de Zandschulp 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 for his maiden win at a major.
And with that, the 141st-ranked Alcaraz became the youngest man to win a Grand Slam singles match since Thanasi Kokkinakis at the 2014 Australian Open.
Alcaraz himself isn’t big on the comparisons with Nadal, despite some similarities. Alcaraz has a muscular game, with fast reflexes and a ferocious intensity. His fist pumps are punctuated with cries of “Vamos” and his grunt certainly matches Nadal’s in terms of decibels.
Nadal also won his first Grand Slam match at the age of 17, beating Mario Ancic at Wimbledon in 2003.
Alcaraz — who unlike Nadal plays right-handed, it should be noted — said after his match that he’s trying to keep the focus on himself and his game and not “hear the comparisons with Rafa.”
That said, he does look to Nadal for inspiration.
“He trains with a lot of intensity all the time,” he said. “Each ball, he try to hit harder every (time). I think he’s focused from the first ball to the last ball. I think it is a good thing to keep.”
And Nadal himself sees a bright future for Alcaraz, provided the promising teen is able to continue improving in the next few years.
“He has intensity. He has the passion. He has the shots,” Nadal said. “Depends on how much you will be able to improve that will make the difference … if you’re going to be very good or if you’re going to be an amazing champion.”
The setting for Alcaraz’s breakthrough couldn’t have been further removed from Rod Laver Arena, where Nadal beat Laslo Djere in the first round. Alcaraz was scheduled on distant Court 17, where his smashes potentially could hit a passing tram if they cleared the fence.
He did, however, have a fairly packed crowd behind him, including his coach, former No. 1-ranked Juan Carlos Ferrero, and U.S. Open semifinalist Pablo Carreno Busta.
Alcaraz next faces Sweden’s Mikael Ymer for a chance to reach the third round — and match Nadal’s performance on his Grand Slam debut in 2003.
“I’m very happy to (get) this win today in my first Grand Slam,” he said. “I try to enjoy, to play my game. I think I did it.”
LOCKDOWN TAKES A TOLL
Several more players who had to endure the 14-day hard lockdown in Australia are now out of the tournament. And many say they had the strict quarantine set-up to blame.
Victoria Azarenka, a two-time title winner at the Australian Open and the runner-up at last year’s U.S. Open, appeared to have trouble breathing and received medical attention in the second set of a 7-5, 6-4 loss to Jessica Pegula of the U.S.
Azarenka didn’t want to discuss her health afterward, but she did note how difficult it was to prepare for a Grand Slam tournament after being one of 72 players placed in hard lockdown — not allowed to leave their hotel rooms for any reason — after potentially being exposed to COVID-19 on their flight.
“The biggest impact for me personally has been not being able to have fresh air,” the 12th-seeded Azarenka said. “That really took a toll.”
As for physical preparations, Azarenka had to get creative: “Hitting against the wall and soft cushions,” she said, before adding with a smile, “Doesn’t work.”
Paula Badosa lost to Russian qualifier Liudmila Samsonova 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-5 in a grueling match that lasted more than 2 1/2 hours. The No. 70-ranked Badosa was put into hard lockdown for three weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 upon her arrival.
“My body was very slow,” the 23-year-old Spaniard said. “It was tough for me to recover.”
Badosa had criticized the quarantine rules both on Twitter and in an interview with Spanish media, in which she said she felt treated like a “criminal.”
She sounded more reflective after her loss, but didn’t back away from her earlier criticisms.
“I know the rules are the rules. But the conditions, they weren’t for a Grand Slam, for an athlete,” she said. “It was tough mentally to get through all that.”
Former Grand Slam winners Angelique Kerber and Sloane Stephens also lost their first-round matches after the hard quarantine lockdown, as did Tennys Sandgren on the men’s side.
Sandgren said he walked on court against Australia’s Alex de Minaur knowing he was probably not going to be able to win.
“How would you imagine prepping for a hot kind of muggy day, three-out-of-five sets against a player like that, that caliber, when you can’t play tennis?” he asked. “You can’t. It’s impossible.”
Coco Gauff has found one way to relieve any pressure she feels about building on her recent Grand Slam successes: hitting a golf ball as hard as she can.
That’s not at the driving range, though. She’s taking aim at the mini-golf course in Melbourne.
“Apparently I play mini golf like tennis. I hit the ball too hard,” she said after her 6-3, 6-2 win over Jil Teichmann in the first round of the Australian Open.
It is not a winning strategy. “I came in last,” she said of a recent outing with her team. Not just once, but twice.
The 16-year-old Gauff is at least finding ways to win on the tennis court. A year after reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open, where she stunned defending champion Naomi Osaka, Gauff feels she’s playing well enough — and free of any pressure — to make an even deeper run.
“Obviously you want to do as well, or even better, than the year before, but I try not to think about it,” she said. “I’m just going out there and having fun.”
As for golf, she’s going to stick to her strategy.
“That’s just how I like to play and … one of these days it’s going to work,” she said, smiling. “And I’m just going to be like, I told you, power is the right way.”
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