The ‘Next Rafa’: Nadal’s heir apparent is 17 and playing in Australian Open

There are two Rafael Nadal story lines swirling about during this first week of the Australian Open. One involves the 20-time Grand Slam winner’s lower back, which, in his words, is not great, though it did not get in the way of his efficient, straight-sets win over Laslo Djere of Serbia in the first round Tuesday.

The second story line involves a 17-year-old Spaniard named Carlos Alcaraz who has suddenly become known as “the next Rafa.” Nadal’s decision to practice with Alcaraz last week, in the final days leading up to the year’s first Grand Slam event, raised the volume of the hype surrounding the teenage prodigy.

“He has intensity, he has the passion, he has the shots,” Nadal said of Alcaraz. “Then it’s all about how much you are able to improve during the next couple of years. It depends on how much you will be able to improve that will make the difference of whether he’s going to be very good, or if you’re going to be an amazing champion.”

Prematurely declaring a teenager a future legend is as much a part of tennis as fuzzy yellow balls. For several years Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria was called Baby Fed because his precocious creativity and all-around game resembled that of the Swiss great Roger Federer. That was nearly a decade ago. Dimitrov is now 29, ranked 21st and still looking for his first Grand Slam title.

There is always a yearning for the next big thing, and so the buzz around Alcaraz persists.

“It’s been a while since we had a young Spaniard came along like this with the promise he is showing at his age,” said Jim Courier, the former world No 1 and a two-time champion in Australia, referring to when Nadal announced himself with a win over Federer at 17.

© 2021 The New York Times News Service

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