Rafa, Carlitos and the blossoming of great hopes

A few weeks ago, on the occasion of the preliminary round of the Davis Cup Spain-Romania, a tribute was organized for the recently deceased Manolo Santana, the prophet of Spanish tennis, the Iberian Pietrangeli so to speak. It is no coincidence that Nicola, his rival but also a great friend, was present on the fields of the luxurious Hotel Puente Romano in Marbella, together with Borg, Kodes, Tiriac and some former prominent Spanish players, starting with Alex Corretja who, with his remarkable communication skills, played the role of master of ceremony. But, lined up on the central, there were also Albert Costa, Nico Almagro, Pato Clavet, José López-Maeso, Anabel Medina, accompanied, even if only in external connection, by Nadal, as well as by Federer, Djokovic and Laver. I tried, for fun, to think of lining up all the cups that these great champions have won on the same field, convincing myself that I did not have enough space available. Mind-boggling numbers. What an extraordinary story, what an incredible tradition and what a constant progression that of Spanish tennis, both for men and women. Countless triumphs on all surfaces and on all continents, including Slams, Davis, Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup), Olympics, with seats permanently reserved among the top ten and several number ones. All this, after all, in just over half a century and a few generations: from 1961, the year in which Santana won her first Roland Garros (in the final with Pietrangeli) to the surprising victory of Nadal in Australia this year.

How weighs Nadal! For those who find it on the other side of the net, but especially for kids who take a racket in hand and dream of becoming champions. Corretja, winner of Gstaad on three occasions, was invited a few years ago with full honors by the organizers of the tournament and one of his daughters said to him, in a tone that was somewhere between reproach and pity “But have you only won it three times? Look how many times Rafa has won Roland Garros! ”. Here, in fact. Any comparison with Nadal is a comparison between galaxies that will never collide, but which can create psychological collisions quite a bit. We all know the cases of promising young Spaniards crushed (also) by the weight of the “new Nadal” label: perhaps the most striking is that of Carlos Boluda, a real star at a youth level, who last year, at 27 and with a best ranking of 254, decided to retire, describing his choice as “a liberation”. Although there is never a shortage of excellent Spanish professionals in the circuit, the Day After bugbear of what will happen after the retirement of the Manacor champion, until recently left us to glimpse uneasy omens, if not even a sunset similar to that of great schools that had dominated the circuit in the past, such as the Australian or the American one. And then Carlitos appeared.

I have lived in Spain for many years and they asked me if the appearance of Nadal and that of Alcaraz on the tennis scene have any similarities; whether there was greater expectation in one case or another; if both have been invested from the beginning with the messianic role of predestined. I would say that the blossoming of these two so precocious talents took place in different contexts. I have told on other occasions that I was lucky enough to witness, a little by chance, the professional debut of a fifteen-year-old Nadal. We are talking about twenty years ago, in the 2001 edition of the Challenger in Seville. After passing the first round against the modest Israel Matos, Stefano Galvani is the second-seeded player (later winner of the tournament). A secondary field, with few seats, but I remember well a crowd of onlookers thronged to see this promising kid already dressed in the terrible “tank top & cap” look and with an attitude halfway between arrogance and awe. Among the insiders there had been talking for some time about this new talent that was emerging, but the expectations, and therefore the pressures, were more nuanced. The bar that Rafa dreamed of jumping was indeed high, very high, but not inaccessible: several generations of great champions, Slam winners (Santana, Orantes, Gimeno, Bruguera, Moyà, Costa and Ferrero), of the Master ( Corretja), even two recent number ones in the world (Moyá and Ferrero), but we were moving in a human dimension after all. On the other hand, for Nadal’s possible reinforcements, the bar seems insurmountable and can intimidate anyone. Then it should be borne in mind that twenty years ago there was no sounding board for social networks, which can turn into a ring capable of beatifying or crucifying anyone. The name of Carlos Alcaraz has for some time flooded not only the specialized media but also the social networks where, as we know, alleged experts, prophets, coaches, technicians, psychologists, historians, and where a healthy confrontation between two players of different generations can be transformed. in a war without quarter. In fact, even for the most cautious, it seems inevitable to compare, to resurrect Rafa’s palmarés at a child and youth level to contrast it with that of Carlos, to elaborate statistics of precocity, to establish technical and tactical comparisons, to predict victories and records to beat. All this can translate into an increase in pressure.

Also for this reason the recent semifinal of Indian Wells had a particular specific weight, that of a possible handover, of a greedy challenge for journalists from all over the world, who helped to load it with epic tones, as if a single match were a duel to death, enough to change the course of history. The match was exciting, moreover played in extreme conditions due to the wind, but what I most admired is precisely the fact that both players were able to overlap this media pressure. Two absolutely privileged heads. Taking the field thinking of beating history and not who is on the other side of the net is almost a guarantee of defeat, as probably happened to Djokovic in the final of the US Open last year.

Even if they are different in terms of tennis, Nadal and Alcaraz share an exceptional personal solidity, largely due to the environment in which they grew up and the education they received. They are bulls in the field, but they emanate that sort of humility and common sense that perhaps transmits the provincial origin, strengthened by the sobriety of an education based on firm values. The families of both have the great merit of having been able to occupy their place with intelligence and respect, without inappropriate interference, resolving the thorny player-coach-parents triangle in the best possible way. It is to be appreciated in particular in the case of Alcaraz, because his father, despite being a professional player (albeit modest) and director of a tennis school, did not succumb to the easy temptation of wanting to shape the champion at home, but he knew how to to step aside when Juan Carlos Ferrero began to take care of raising his son. For the record: Ferrero, who is a human and sensitive person, was impressed (as recently told by his former coach Antonio Martínez Cascales) as well as by the tennis potential, by the personal qualities of little Carlos, so much so that he bet everything on him, declining the prestigious collaboration offers of players such as Thiem or Tsitsipas.

Down to earth and common sense together with hard work and ambition are excellent pillars on which to build a career, as Rafa has shown and as Carlos is showing, indeed… Carlitos. In a recent interview on Men’s Health (the song of the extratennial sirens reaches anyone …), in addition to showing the physique he has sculpted in hard training sessions, he in fact said he preferred the diminutive with which they have always called him: “I want those who know me to keep calling me Carlitos, because that’s what they always called me. I do not want suddenly, because I grew up or because I am a tennis player, they call me Carlos. I want them to continue to see me as the kid I’ve always been ”. To this simplicity, which I hope will not be affected over time, we must add an overwhelming hunger for victory, so much so that Ferrero on Mundo Deportivo said of him that “When he smells blood he is like a shark”. It is probably impossible to match Nadal’s results, but it is possible to draw inspiration from what will be his most precious legacy, that combination of humility and ambition that have contributed to making him one of the greatest sportsmen in history.

Paolo Silvestri

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