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Carlos Alcaraz Ascent: A Comparison of Teen Phenoms

Alcaraz has had one of the most impressive entrances onto the scene in modern tennis history. Lets take a look at how it compares to a few other teenage phenoms. (I’m going to stay in the 80’s on because the equipment was so different pre mid 80’s. )

Rafael Nadal

Nadal would play his first professional tennis match at the age of 15 back in 2001. He would lose that day to the 731st player in the world Guillermo Platel who would peak out at 534th in the world. As a side note can you imagine having that story and casually being able to drop you beat Nadal in a pro tournament? I don’t know anything about this guy or what he is doing now, but he’s probably working a 9 to 5 somewhere or stringing rackets as a club pro. When you Google his name a head to head with Nadal is one of the first items that comes up.

A week later Nadal would get his first win vs a professional, beating the 731st ranked player in the world and then go on to give the 131st player a competitive 3-set match before losing. That was in September 2001, and he wouldn’t play again until April 2002. That day he would be the first player to win his first ever ATP tour match vs #81 Ramón Delgado at the age of 15 years 10 months. One of only 9 men ever to do so before their 16th birthday. Nearly a year to the day he would land his first top 10 win vs #7 Albert Costa, and would follow it up with a win over #4 Carlos Moya cracking the top 100 at just 16 years old. Less than a year later in March 2004 at the age of 17 he would beat #1 ranked Roger Federer 6-3, 6-3 in their first meeting ever and the rest is pretty much history. In 2005 Nadal wins 11 titles that season including his first major and reached 2nd in the world behind Federer at 19.

Lleyton Hewitt

Hewitt would win his first title at the age of 16 years 10 months, 9 days, nearly a 1 and a half years younger than Nadal or Alcaraz. He had planned on going to high school his senior year, but this would prompt him to quit school.

Making the feat more impressive was who he went though to win the tournament.

It wasn’t as if he beat a lame field. Wooforde, Spadea, and Stoltenberg were all top 20 players at some point in their careers. Agassi’s ranking was low, but that’s because he hadn’t played much in 1997. He’d finish 1998 6th and then finish ranked #1 in 1999. That’s a heck of a tournament win. Hewitt would back it up by cracking the top 10 a few months after his 19th birthday. He would become the youngest man to win a Doubles Grand Slam (19 years 6 months) in the Open Era, and be ranked #1 in the world at 20 years 8 months, youngest before Alcaraz. Personally, I still think his record deserves mention with how the rankings are different with Wimbledon points not counting and some slams not letting Djokovic play. It doesn’t discredit what Alcaraz has done, and he may still be the undisputed clear #1 with in the next year making it moot, but it does deserve pointing out if not an asterisk.

Michael Chang

Chang is the youngest man to ever win a Grand Slam. The eventual world #2 would win his first and only slam at age 17 years 110 days which is pretty crazy. I’m sure he and many others thought it would be the first of many the way he burst on to the scene. He still had an amazing career, but the mark he made on the sport was mostly before he could even legally vote. Chang would play his first match on the ATP tour at 15 years old, and would get his first victory a week later at the US Open vs a 33 year old who was ranked as high as 24th in the world a year earlier. He would become the youngest player to ever win in the main draw at the US Open. A month later at the age of 15 he would become the youngest to reach the semi finals of an ATP Tour event. The next year at 16 years 7 months old he would win his first ATP Tour event.

Then this would happen….

What a historic run, beating a young Sampras, #1 seed Lendl and robbing Edberg of the all-time Grand Slam. Top 5 in the world, with a grand slam win 5 months before his 18th birthday might never be matched on the men’s side.

Andre Agassi

Agassi was probably more known for the flair early on, but it was the winning early on that gave him the stage to be the young rock star of tennis. Agassi would make his debut just a month before his 16th birthday beating an unranked player before facing #3 in the world Mats Wilander. Wilander would beat him 6-1, 6-1 like a world #3 should spank a 15 year old.

Agassi would get his first big win a few months later at 16 years old vs #12 in the world Tim Mayotte. There wouldn’t be many other notable wins until a year later at 17 years old when he took down #7 Pat Cash, #13 Brad Gilbert, and #15 Martin Jaite just before the end of 1987. He would win his first 2 titles and finish 25th in the world before his 18th birthday. 1988 was the breakout year that saw him reach the Semi’s of the only 2 majors he played and finish the year ranked 3rd at the age of 18.

That’s a nice run for an 18 year old.

Pete Sampras

Sampras would get his first two top 40 wins when he was 16 and a half years old in 1988. By the end of that year at age 17 he took down #8 Tim Mayotte and finished the year in the top 100 (97th). 1989 wouldn’t see much overall progress, finishing that season 81st. He did register his first top 5 win vs #5 Mats Wilander. 1990 would be his breakout season winning 4 titles including the US Open a month after his 19th birthday and finish the season ranked 5th.

That’s an epic run through Muster, Lendl, McEnroe, and Agassi.

Roger Federer

Federer was a teen phenom, but not really in the way these others are on the list. He didn’t crack the top 10 until he was nearly 21 years old and he didn’t win his first major until he was almost 22. Infact by the end of his 2003 when he was 22 years old he played in 20 majors and only reached the 2nd week 3 times. Contrasted to age peers like Hewitt and Safin who were already ranked #1 at 20 it’s a later path. That’s not to say he didn’t have his moments and flash the greatness he would eventually realize and dominate the four players of his era that beat him to #1 first. His introduction would be beating two Top 45 players shortly after his 17th birthday. He would famously play #8 Andre Agassi the shortly after as well but lose handily. His first big win would be against #5 Carlos Moya at 17 and a half years old. He would of course get his iconic moment shortly before his 20th birthday, taking out #6 Pete Sampras at Wimbledon.

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic didn’t really do much of anything notable before turning 18, but did beat his first top 10 player #9 Mariano Puerta at 18 years old. By the age of 20 though, he would make it to the US Open finals and win the Australian Open.

Carlos Alcaraz

Novak Djokovic corrected himself at the Laver Cup after saying Alcaraz tennis game was on his way up, only to point out no he’s already here. Winning a slam, achieving world #1, and taking out Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal(on Clay) in years they won the other 3 slams, yeah, he’s arived. The man of the present and most likely future, lets take a look how he got to this point.

It all started in 2018 when a 14 year old Alcaraz would beat world #292 Federico Gaio, recording his first world ranking points before anyone else on this list would do so. He would lose in the quarter-finals to the #319 in the world. He would not play again until the following year at age 15 winning several matches vs players ranked in the Top 700. The most notable being vs 319th ranked 17 year old future rival Jannik Sinner. 140th Pedro Martinez who has since reached a career high of 40th both before his 16th birthday back in 2019.

2020 would be fairly uneventful, grinding out wins over players that weren’t very notable. He would eventually land his first major win vs #41 Albert Ramos-Vinolas 3 months before his 17th birthday. He would finish that season ranked 141 at 17 years old. 2021 would see him start his ascent really in January still at the age of 17 beating #14 in the world David Goffin. He would also beat future rival #26 Casper Ruud in a preview of things to come still as a 17 year old. After turning 18 he would go on to win his first ATP title and eventually beat #3 Stefanos Tsitsipas, #7 Matteo Berrettini, #9 Jannik Sinner and finish the year as world #32.

2022 would see him march to a 52-10 record and 5 titles on his way to world #1. Most notably of course beating Nadal and Djokovic along the way in years they won the other 3 majors. They were ranked. #4 and #1 at the time.

Conclusion

If you win this big this early, it’s a great indicator of greatness. I think what I find most interesting about this list is how these are all diminutive players or players without a great serve. Theoretically, if I didn’t know any of the histories, my first inclination would have been towards players with big serves like Goran Ivanišević, Sampras or Safin. In fairness, they were there pretty early as well, all before 20 years old just not as early outside of Sampras. A player like that in theory or just some 6-10 servebot that powered his way through a tournament is what I would have expected to see as the youngest champions. Those seemed like the kind of player type that could make the biggest splashes early, in my mind. Instead it’s the small quick guys that were probably already at their near-peak speed. They just relentlessly chanced balls that all made the biggest splashes under 19 with an unlimited energy supply. I think that’s what we saw from all the 5 setters Alcaraz got through.

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