Carlos Alcaraz is the name on every tennis supporters’ lips right now. The 19-year-old sensation looks the most likely candidate to finally end the Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer era of domination in the mens game, and his victories at the Miami and Madrid Opens earlier this year show he very much means business.
Alcaraz now has his sights firmly set on glory in Paris at the French Open, and he has already insisted he is more than ready to claim his first Grand Slam title. No doubt watching on with keen interest will be Kiko Navarro, who was Alcaraz’s very first coach at the Murcia School of Tennis in the quiet Spanish town of El Palmar.
Speaking exclusively to Express Sport, Kiko – who affectionately calls his former student Carlitos – claims he always knew Alcaraz was destined for greatness. “I am a long-time friend of Carlitos’ father, so I watched him grow up,” Kiko says. “The first time I saw him with a racket in his hands was at the age of four, when he was playing with his dad, who is also a coach. It was incredible to watch, as he already had a brilliant technique. At such a young age, what he was doing was not normal, trying to take his dad on in a full court match.
“He joined our club at around eight or nine. Initially he played with a few other kids in a small group, but we soon had to take him away for individual classes, because he was just too good for them.”
One of the factors which seems to give Alcaraz an advantage over his rivals is his ability to keep a cool head, and you rarely, if ever, see him throw a tantrum or smash his racket on the court like certain others. Kiko, however, recalls that this was not always the case.
“All kids can be characters at times,” he laughs. “Even Roger Federer used to get angry and throw his racket around when he was young, and Carlitos was no different. He never liked losing, and would cry when he did, and we had to take him off the court a few times. But to be a tennis player at the top level I think you need to have that kind of personality.
“From around 13 or 14 there was a change in his attitude and he became more calm, but before that there was definitely a broken racket or two!”
It was soon time for Alcaraz to make the step up and feature in competitive tournaments, and Kiko continues: “We went on our first trip to Croatia to play a competition in Pula, and Carlos lost in the final to another Spanish player. We then went on what was then called the ‘Rafa Nadal tour’, going around the country and winning tournaments in Madrid, Valencia and so on.
“I coached him until the age of 15, and from then Juan Ferrero was added to the team. He was an idol to me as a kid and someone I watched on TV. Carlitos needed someone else outside of Murcia as he had outgrown us. Our manager contacted Ferrero and Carlos was, obviously, delighted.”
The rest, as they say, is history, and the sky is now the limit. Kiko is certain that Alcaraz will go on to achieve huge success – and believes the French Open could well be where his career truly takes off.
“I feel very proud when I watch him,” he beams. “It’s been many years of work and lots of travelling. Of course everybody sees the glorious side, but not the blood, sweat and tears that go in behind the scenes. I still speak to Carlitos and see him from time-to-time, but as you can imagine people have gone crazy for him in Spain, and it’s difficult for him to be in Murcia without getting mobbed.
“If he plays at the level he is capable of he has to be considered one of the favourites in France. It will be tough because in the semi-finals he could cross paths with Djokovic, who I think is his most dangerous rival. Nadal will also be in contention, but I don’t think he is at 100%.”
It is certainly an exciting time for Spanish tennis, and the French Open could provide another mouthwatering showdown between Alcaraz and his hero Nadal. It is a rivalry which has captured a nation, and Kiko continues: “I think the older generation still support Rafa and realistically he is still the main man. When I was training Carlitos, Rafa was always the player we aspired for him to be like. It is a shame but also perhaps a positive thing that Rafa clearly does not have long left at the top, maybe two years maximum.
“The younger people and the people of Murcia support Carlos, I think. But a beautiful rivalry is developing between the two, and it is a pity it may not last long.”
So, does Kiko have any final words of encouragement for his apprentice?
“I always message him before tournaments and simply tell him to enjoy it, to not pay too much attention to the media. I tell him that if he plays at the level he is capable of, he can beat anyone.
Watch this space…