With every new day in the tennis world, the rise of Carlos Alcaraz becomes even more inevitable. He is the youngest player in the top 100, the youngest to win 30 matches in a season since Rafael Nadal many moons ago, and during last year’s breakout season he became the youngest US Open quarter-finalist in the Open era, winning a title and earning his first grand slam seeding for good measure.
But on Friday evening, after four long and exhausting hours of play, Matteo Berrettini, the seventh seed, played the role of a seasoned veteran as he drew on every inch of his growing wealth of experience to delay the Spaniard for at least one more tournament.
Berrettini had led by two sets, only to see his lead crumble before an 18 year-old who played without fear or favour, but he eventually recovered to defeat Alcaraz 6-2, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 2-6, 7-6 (5). On Friday night, Rafael Nadal also reached the fourth round in far less complicated circumstances after he defeated Karen Khachanov, the 28th seed, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1.
“I was telling myself that the guy that would have won the match was the guy that wanted it more. So I guess I wanted it more,” said Berrettini. “But this is just a sentence I was telling myself to feel ready, and I think in the end it’s about fighting and trying and do the right things. I really fought hard. That’s what I think made the difference.”
Alcaraz, seeded 31st, has already established himself as one of the brightest young players in the game, boasting athleticism, dynamic weapons and relentless competitiveness. The homework for Alcaraz in the off-season was to improve his serve, one of the obvious weaker points in his game, and to continue working on his physicality. He has indeed started the season placing his serve far better and the sleeveless shirt he opted to wear in Australia just so happens to demonstrate the clear physical gains he has made.
It was the youngster who soared early, seizing control of points with his forehand and suffocating Berrettini in his early service games. He generated five break points early in the opening set, but Berrettini matched them with excellent serving. Alcaraz’s commitment to dominating with his forehand soon became his weakness as he over-pressed and sprayed errors as Berrettini moved towards a two set lead.
“I was feeling confident. In the third, there were a couple of games I was 0-30 and I felt the momentum was on my side, and then tennis,” he said, clicking his fingers. “It’s like this.”
Alcaraz worked his way back into the match by demonstrating his improved serve, finding his feet through increasingly smooth holds. Then he began to overwhelm Berrettini by pinning the Italian into his backhand corner and forehand winners. He finished with 23 forehand winners in total, 12 more than the Italian.
A brilliant final set filled with effective serving and one sublime hold from Alcaraz, saving a match point at 5-6, followed. They convened in a final set super tiebreak, where Berrettini’s composure, experience and supreme serving finally made a difference. As he burst ahead and never looked back, Alcaraz double faulted on match point.
“I’m very proud of the performance today,” said Alcaraz. “I mean, it was my first time two sets down, and then be able to come back like the way I did. I gave everything on the court, so that’s the thing that I want to do, give everything on the court and I’m very proud the way that I did.”
Berrettini, meanwhile, only had many positive words for his young opponent: “He’s unbelievable,” he said. “I think at his age I didn’t even have an ATP point. He’s impressive, he can only improve playing matches like this. He showed everybody his potential. Luckily today I won but, really, congrats to him.”
The veteran on Friday, at 25 years old Berrettini is young himself and part of a generation still just settling at the top of the sport. His own pathway remains unique. When the likes of Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev sped up towards the top of the game from their youth, Berrettini took his time and slowly caught up.
While his limitations are more glaring than some, his backhand in particular, he makes up for it with his steadfast commitment to nurturing his strengths; serve, forehand, backhand slice. He remains a contender in Melbourne.
As the youngest player in the men’s draw narrowly lost, the second oldest, also a Spaniard, kept himself in the fight. Nadal faced his first top 50 opponent since his six-month injury layoff and he passed another test in his comeback, defeating Khachanov in four sets to reach the fourth round.