It's been some year for Carlos Alcaraz. Competing in just his second full season on the ATP Tour, the general expectation for this hugely talented Spanish teenager was a purposeful climb up the rankings, another title or two, and the occasional deep run at the Grand Slams. You know, the sort of thing tennis has come to expect from a youngster on the rise.
What transpired instead rewrote the history books and established Alcaraz as the best tennis player in the world.
“I've had time to realise what I did, to look back on this amazing year and I still can't believe it,” Alcaraz told The National. “A lot of things to enjoy from this year and now I need to try to do the same or better next season.”
Starting the season ranked two places outside the top 30, an 18-year-old Alcaraz went on an immediate charge, winning the Rio de Janeiro title in his second tournament of the year. Two events later, he was back in the winner's circle, in Miami, with his first Masters 1000 title, becoming the tournament's youngest ever champion.
It was clear at that point something special was brewing, and the switch from hard to clay courts – and a change in continent – refused to halt Alcaraz's momentum as the Spaniard claimed title No 3 of the year in Barcelona.
Then, the following week, came his first significant statement of intent as more records tumbled at the Madrid Masters. Having just surged into the top 10, Alcaraz carved his way through the field, becoming the first player to beat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal back-to-back on clay, before thrashing Alexander Zverev in the final.
He was also the first teenager to beat Nadal on clay and the youngest player to beat a world No 1 since 2004.
Alcaraz had a couple more chances to add to his trophy collection, reaching finals in Hamburg and Umag, but the crowning achievement of an already spectacular year took place in New York.
After coming through three straight five-set battles, Alcaraz faced Casper Ruud in the US Open final with a maiden Grand Slam title and the world No 1 ranking on the line for both players. It would be Alcaraz who would emerge victorious, in four sets, completing one of the most remarkable rises in the history of men's tennis.
At 19 years, four months and six days old, Alcaraz became the youngest world No 1 in men's tennis history and the first teenager to top the rankings in the Open era. Despite missing the ATP Finals with injury, Alcaraz had done more than enough to claim the coveted end-of-year top ranking.
Getting to world No 1 is one thing but staying there is the big challenge awaiting Alcaraz. No longer is he part of the chasing pack, no longer will he be a Grand Slam contender, or one of the higher seeds. Now he is the target, the Grand Slam favourite, and the top seed.
“Next season is going to be different for me,” Alcaraz said. “I’m not going to be one of the guys who is climbing up, I’m there, so this season will be a different mentality.
“I have to be prepared to stay strong the whole year because I’ll be going to lots of tournaments as the favourite. Everyone wants to beat me so I have to be prepared for that.”
The ATP Tour is a notoriously challenging and gruelling circuit but such has been Alcaraz's breathtaking rise, and the manner with which he has bulldozed his way through the rankings, the Spaniard has, at times, made it all look a bit easy. That's what a generational talent is wont to do.
“No, no, no. Maybe I made it seem easy! Honestly, it has been really hard,” Alcaraz said. “It’s been great that I achieved a lot of great things but at the same time I’ve worked really, really hard every day. So for me, it has been the result of really good work, to be able to achieve what I have this year.”
In addition to Alcaraz's rise to superstardom, the 2022 season also saw several other young talents emerge. Ruud, 23, Felix Auger-Aliassime, 22, and fellow 19-year-old Holger Rune have all enjoyed breakthrough seasons, while Stefanos Tsitsipas, 24, and Daniil Medvedev, 26, continue to cement their status as elite players. In fact, Nadal and Djokovic are the only players in the top 10 older than 26.
It bodes well for the future of the men's game after an era dominated by the three greatest players in history. Roger Federer has already retired and while Nadal and Djokovic are still going strong, they won't be too far behind.
“For 20 years it’s always been the same players, the Big Four, always winning the biggest tournaments,” Alcaraz said. “Right now, there are so many chances to win those tournaments and so many players have those chances. I’m really happy to see a lot of tennis players that can compete at the top. There's a really big group.”
As he prepares for his first season as the world No 1, Alcaraz will be in Abu Dhabi this week to compete in the Mubadala World Tennis Championship for the first time.
“I'm really excited to play there. I watched it on TV for a lot of years and its great to have the top players playing there and share some days with them.,” the Spaniard said. “It’s good preparation for the new season, to play some matches against some of the best players, and against players you don’t normally play during pre-season.
“At the academy I'm always playing with the same players so to change a little bit, and travel to the UAE, with the weather, it’s amazing to have this chance to prepare for the new season.”