As his teenage years have now drawn to a close, even Alcaraz laments the fact he cannot set records for someone of that age anymore. More pertinently, he also said his ambition is to become one of the all-time greats.
How often in the history of sport have we been able to say that a teenager was the best in the world at the sport they play? I’ll save you some time — not often. How often have we been able to say that a teenager is the best in the sport of men’s tennis? Prior to Carlos Alcaraz, never.
Let’s play a game. You (the reader, who is obviously obsessed with tennis) have just been told you get to go back to the age of 10 years old, but the catch is you get to keep your current intellect. With this far above average intellect (and we’re assuming far above average athleticism) you have decided you want to reroute your life and become one of the greatest tennis players to ever play the game. So what’s the formula to becoming great? Well first you should probably practice a lot, but then when you get the chance you should go pro and try to win a grand slam (or 20). While what defines “greatness” in tennis will likely be debated until the last light goes out in the universe, I think the majority of reasonable minds would agree winning one of the four yearly grand slams makes for a great career. Keep in mind the more grand slams you win the greater your career will be perceived, so while one slam is very good, multiple is what will truly take you to the top tiers of greatness.
Now, if you really want to get a head start on your tennis greatness you would win a grand slam as a teenager. Only eight male tennis players in the open era have won grand slams as teenagers and doing so almost assures you of winning many more (unless you’re Michael Chang). On average (excluding Carlos Alcaraz), teenage grand slam winners in the open era go on to win 9.57 grand slams over the course of their career, so statistically speaking winning a grand slam as a teenager gives you a terrific jump on greatness.
So just how hard is it to actually win one of these grand slams as a teen? Of the 219 grand slams that have been played since the start of the open area (1968) only 11 have been won by teenagers. That’s 5% for all of you doing the math at home. Also, it should be noted that those 11 slams have actually been won by just 8 players — Michael Chang, Bjorn Borg x2, Boris Becker x2, Mats Wilander x2, Rafael Nadal, Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg and, after last year's US Open triumph, Carlos Alcaraz.
I should additionally tell you that in this game we are playing you don’t get to go back to when you were originally 10 years old, you have to do so in today’s day and age. Unfortunately this makes it even more difficult to win a grand slam as a teenager, however the upside is that once you win one you are almost assured of winning many, many more. You see, of the 11 grand slams won by teenagers in the open era, 8 were won during the 70s and 80s, so that means only 3 have been won since 1990. In other words, of the 133 grand slams played since the start of the 1990 calendar year, 2.25% have been won by teenagers. Now for the upside part: when we exclude Carlos, our two other teenage grand slam champions (Nadal and Sampras) in this time period went on to win 22 and 14 grand slams respectively over the course of their careers (that’s 18 averaged out and Nadal is still technically going). So there you go, overcome the odds to win a grand slam as a teen in today’s era and you will very likely earn yourself tennis greatness.
In all seriousness, the example and numbers above were meant to demonstrate how insane and rare Carlos Alcaraz's accomplishment of winning a grand slam as a teenager has been. The truth is, while teenage tennis greatness (winning a slam) almost always statistically equates to long-term career greatness, it isn’t a requirement. Roger Federer won a singular ATP 250 title in his teens and just 58% of his matches (91-65 record). Novak Djokovic experienced slightly more success than Roger as a teen (he won 5 titles, including a Masters title) but also never won a grand slam. Yet a lack of greatness as teens didn’t stop Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic from going on to reach the pinnacle of the sport and forever include themselves in any and all GOAT conversations, alongside Rafael Nadal.
The reality of Carlos Alcaraz is he is almost assured of — greatness if he can stay healthy. The young man has won nearly 77% of his matches and 9 ATP level titles (including 1 grand slam and 3 masters titles) as a teenager. The only teenager of the modern era (I’m defining the modern era as being from 1990 on) that can best those numbers is Rafael Nadal who won 79% of his matches as a teenager which included 16 ATP titles (1 slam and 6 masters).
And yet as good as Nadal was as a teenager (and he was extraordinary), Carlos accomplished one thing that neither Nadal, nor any other (male) teenager in the history of tennis has accomplished, he reached the #1 ranking in the world, aka the best male tennis player on the face of the earth, and he didn’t just occupy that spot for a fleeting moment (1 or 2 weeks), he sat there for 22 weeks of his teenage life.
On May 5th, 2023 Carlos turned 20 years old and cease to be a teenage phenom and honestly, part of me will be sad as teen greatness like this doesn’t come around often, but another part of me couldn’t be more excited about his future for if history shows us anything, it’s that his best tennis is still out in front of him.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the tennis ahead.
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