Alcaraz’s rise and Nadal’s absence create remarkable, improbable confluence

Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent

If a tennis player were to be equated with the moon, and the lunar phases seen as the waxing and waning of their career, there are two players whose career arcs fit this analogy, currently. One is Carlos Alcaraz and the other is his compatriot, Rafael Nadal. Quirkily, this correlation began at the 2023 Australian Open.

Alcaraz missed the start of the season, including the first Major of the year Down Under after having injured his right hamstring in the offseason. Thereafter, and especially in these past weeks, the former’s trajectory was marked by a stack of successes like the peaking moon. The Murcia native, who recently turned 20, has either made the semifinals or the final of each tournament he’s played this year, starting at the Buenos Aires Open in February extending to the Mutua Madrid Open he won on Sunday.

In total, Alcaraz’s collected three titles and has lost just the one final, to Cameron Norrie in Buenos Aires. By winning in Madrid, he only needs to make an appearance at the Italian Open the following week to regain the No. 1 ranking spot for the second time this year. Earlier, the 2022 US Open champion had wrested the top place in the rankings from Novak Djokovic for a brief while after his victory in Indian Wells in March.

On the other hand, Alcaraz’s older-by-16-years compatriot, Nadal, who did get to start the year in Australia, has had quite a significant downturn. The Mallorcan started his season in Australia as the then defending champion in Melbourne Park. However, Mackenzie McDonald upset him in the second round after which Nadal announced he picked up a hip injury. But while the 36-year-old expected to be out of commission for merely a handful of weeks, he’s been left unable to compete for almost the entirety of the clay season due to the slow progress of his rehab.

Week in and week out, Nadal’s apology-laden messages pop in on social media channels. The messages begin the same way, “Hola a todos” – Hello, everyone – before delving into his absence in the tournament that’s set to start next. The seriousness of Nadal’s physical woes has only been exacerbated with each additional withdrawal, with him pulling out of the Rome Open coming across as the gravest of them all.

Nadal’s a 10-time champion in the Italian Masters 1000 tournament. As such, it took a significant turning of history’s pages to find out when he hadn’t featured among the playing field there, prior to now. It turns out the last time Rafael Nadal didn’t play in Rome was in 2004, 19 years ago. Alcaraz was only about a year old.

Then, between 2004 and 2023, Nadal has seen generations of players emerge as his competitors and rivals and has tamed them. Alongside this, the 22-time Grand Slam champion also bested Roger Federer – the player who was regarded as the greatest while he was making his surge while keeping himself in contention against a rival of his generation, Novak Djokovic.

Times have truly changed. For several of these intervening years, Nadal dealt with a variety of injuries. But he was able to regroup and recover mentally and physically to do well and maintain his place among the world’s 10 best for about 18 years, since making his debut there in 2005. Now, even as he tries to make one final push to play the French Open this year the possibility of his non-participation posing direr consequences for him in the rankings, the territory he’s in feels largely unfamiliar despite its familiarity.

Alcaraz continually finding his momentum and peak at about the same time feels like some kind of checks and balance in the working of the tennis universe. It’s felt and experienced by its audiences and is still, inexplicable.

Likewise, this inexplicability isn’t a one-off occurrence but a theme that’s been repeated across eras. This cresting of one player coinciding with the ebbing of another makes tennis analogous with the moon heightening the sport’s relevance, creating a bigger spectacle than how it has usually been regarded.

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