When Carlos Alcaraz sat down to talk to The National at the end of last year, following a historic and record-breaking season, the Spanish teenager said he was expecting a challenging 2023.
After all, 2022 had been near flawless, culminating in a Grand Slam breakthrough at the US Open and a rise to become the youngest world No 1 in ATP Tour history. This year, though, Alcaraz said he would be ready for more adversity and a renewed challenge from his rivals as he prepared for a first full season as the hunted.
It didn't take long for the first setback of Alcaraz's prodigious career, with a hamstring injury causing him to miss the Australian Open and the first six weeks of the season. Arriving in California last week for the Indian Wells Masters, Alcaraz's preparation comprised of two claycourt tournaments in South America, where he won the title in Buenos Aires and reached the final in Rio de Janeiro – where the hamstring issue flared up again.
Yet to reach full fitness, hindered by a hamstring niggle, and unaccustomed to the tournament's hardcourt conditions, few within tennis would have judged Alcaraz too harshly had his Indian Wells campaign ended early, despite being the top seed in the absence of world No 1 Novak Djokovic.
Instead, the 19-year-old bulldozed his way through the field, even dominating the tour's most in-form player, Daniil Medvedev, in the final and clinching the title without facing a break point all week. While the 19 previous opponents, including Djokovic, were powerless to stop Medvedev, Alcaraz put him firmly in his place and denied the Russian a fourth successive title.
By winning the trophy, Alcaraz returned to the top of the rankings on Monday, an achievement perhaps aided by Djokovic missing the tournament because of his unvaccinated status against Covid-19. Still, the first sign of adversity for Alcaraz was overcome with flying colours.
"I began the season well but struggled a lot with injuries," Alcaraz said. "Two injuries in the legs in about four months, it was tough to stay strong mentally.
"I missed some tournaments I wanted to play, but I worked really hard with my team. I believe in myself and the work I'm doing right now and I'd say that's the most important thing.
"It means a lot to recover the No 1 ranking. I'm not going to say it was easy, but it was easier because Djokovic was not playing."
Victory over Medvedev also meant Alcaraz became the youngest man to win the Indian Wells and Miami Open titles, a feat dubbed the 'sunshine double'.
"The thing that's improved most is the mental game," said Alcaraz, who lost to Medvedev in their first meeting in 2021.
"I got a lot of experience since that match. I was new on tour at that time but now I've played a lot of great matches and won great titles. That's made me more confident. Now I know how to handle tough moments."
Now it's time for Alcaraz's next challenge: the defence of his Miami Open title. Djokovic will be absent again but regardless, the Spanish teenager will need to win the tournament to remain world No 1.
Even if he is knocked off his perch, a fascinating tussle for top spot should ensue during the European claycourt swing. Five of Alcaraz's eight titles have come on clay, while two-time French Open champion Djokovic will be free to play for the next two months, and indeed beyond into June and July for his Wimbledon defence.
Covid-related entry rules are also expected to loosen in North America from next month, so the Serb is likely to resume a full schedule for the rest of the season. With Rafael Nadal suffering from yet another serious injury – a consequence of which has seen the Spaniard sit outside the top 10 for the first time in 18 years – Alcaraz looks best positioned to challenge Djokovic for supremacy this year.
And his sensational form at Indian Wells, amid potentially tricky circumstances, cemented what the tennis world already knew: Alcaraz is a generational talent already leading a new era.