Alcaraz is back and the signs are clear: Djokovic and Nadal should be very worried

BUENOS AIRES – “-Yes, yes!”. Carlos Alcaraz clenched his fists as his pink T-shirt looked soaked. Happy, he confirmed something: three and a half months may have passed between October 31, 2022 in Paris and February 15, 2023 in Buenos Aires, but he is still the same great leader of the tour. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have serious reason to worry.

“It’s been quite a long time for me, I’m not used to being out of competition for so long,” said the Spaniard, the world number two, after a 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 win over Serbia’s Laslo Djere on a scorching hot night in Buenos Aires, home of the Argentina Open.

The match on the orange court at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club (BALTC) marked a late start to the 2023 season for the ATP’s top-ranked player of 2022. Injured at the end of the season that saw him win the US Open, his first Grand Slam title, Alcaraz missed the Australian tour, in which he had high expectations.

But one man’s bad is another man’s good: Buenos Aires, an ATP 250 that did not expect to have a star of that calibre this year, benefited from the need to compete for Alcaraz, who is in Argentina this week and next week will play the Rio Open in Rio de Janeiro, an ATP 500.

The Spaniard needs to get some practice, game, tennis, before the demands of Indian Wells and Miami in March and the arrival of the European clay-court season.

Carlos Alcaraz is back after three and a half months out / ARGENTINA OPEN

Argentina, a country deeply in love with tennis since Guillermo Vilas popularised it in the 1970s, knows how to welcome big names: it did it in 2001 with Gustavo Kuerten, who had closed the previous year as world number one, and in 2005, 2015 and 2016 with Rafael Nadal.

The centre court of the BALTC was packed, on a night that brought back some memory of those first steps of Nadal in Buenos Aires, a 0-6, 6-0, 6-1 quarter-final defeat in 2005 to Gaston Gaudio, the last before starting a remarkable series that saw him win Roland Garros four months later and repeat that success 13 more times.

“It’s been amazing to have my first match of the season here in Buenos Aires, the love I’ve received has been super special,” said Alcaraz, who last week tried out some tango steps in front of the Obelisk, Buenos Aires’ main monument, and on Wednesday showed a special connection with the crowd.

“I have a great time on the court and I connect very well with the public. I try to put on a show apart from my game. And I succeed, or at least that’s what I see,” he said with a smile on his face.

Djere, a talented and courageous player, seriously complicated an Alcaraz who was noticeably lacking of game, but who showed his enormous class at key moments. A couple more matches and he should be at the level he impressively showed in 2022.

“The return to competition is never easy, I have a lot to improve, I lack competition. It has been a good match in which I take positive things and some negative things to improve,” admitted the 19-year-old Spaniard, who had on his technical bench the veteran Antonio Martinez Cascales, coach of his current coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Nadal said more than once that he would like to live the feeling of being Argentinean. He was referring to the encouragement and support of a very passionate public, who live sport in general, and tennis matches in particular, as if it were a matter of the utmost importance, as well as understanding the sport of the racket. In the days leading up to the debut, hundreds of people climbed up walls or lay face down on the floor to try to catch a glimpse of the Spaniard’s training sessions.

Alcaraz, who will face Dusan Lajovic on Friday, brought back the memory of Nadal: he too wanted to taste some “Argentinianness”.

“The asado, the meat is spectacular. But seriously, the people have a special treatment, I was looking forward to coming here, to see what it felt like to be here in Argentina. It’s been a spectacular few days”.

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Clay’s managing editor has covered more than 60 Grand Slam tournaments since 1996. Author of “Sin Red”, a journey around the world following Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: The Lives and Careers of Two Tennis Legends