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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, May 5, 2021


Rafael Nadal won nine of the first 10 games rampaging through Alcaraz's 18th birthday with a 6-1, 6-2 sweep to storm into the Mutua Madrid Open round of 16.

Photo credit: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell Facebook

Time is the only unbeaten adversary in tennis.

Rafael Nadal continues to confront both advancing age and the next generation on the rise with confidence, command and celebratory spirit.

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In an all-Spanish blockbuster between the nation's future champion Carlos Alcaraz and it's glorious present, the 34-year-old Nadal played with the energy of a man proving his future is now.

A fired-up Nadal won nine of the first 10 games rampaging through Alcaraz's 18th birthday with a 6-1, 6-2 sweep to roar into the Mutua Madrid Open round of 16.

"Great feeling. Enjoyed a lot being back on this very important place in front of probably the most loyal crowd in the world for me," Nadal said. "So I enjoyed playing in front of them.

"Even if was not a comfortable start against a very young and great player like Carlos, I think I played a solid match and I did what I had to do to be through, no? So very happy about the performance today."

The five-time Madrid champion dodged break point in the opening game then took complete control transforming birthday bash into tennis tutorial.

Empowered by his run to his 87th title in Barcelona, Nadal will continue his hunt for title No. 88 as he takes Alexei Popyrin for a quarterfinal spot.

Aussie qualifier Popyrin surprised 14th-seeded Jannik Sinner 7-6(5), 6-2 advancing to his first Masters 1000 round of 16.

Coached by former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 120th-ranked Alcaraz is a tremendous talent—he beat Adrian Mannarino in his opener to surpass Nadal as the youngest male match-winner in Madrid's 19-year history—but playing just his 16th career ATP match he's still learning and refining his game.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion says he's an Alcaraz fan.

"Well, he's playing very aggressive. He has a lot of potential," Nadal said of Alcaraz. "He's a young and good guy, so, I mean, he already has a great level of tennis today, but I really believe that he gonna be a fantastic player in the near future, no?

"Yeah, I wish him all the very best. I mean, like Spanish player and like in Spanish fan, I really believe that we need somebody like him, and it's great to have him here."

In retrospect, Alcaraz may look back on this loss as one of the best birthday presents of his life as he got a first-hand look of the intensity, execution and energy required to get to where he wants to be. Still, given the teenager suffered an apparent injury strain three games into the match the fact he finished on his feet, apparently healthy and endured Nadal's shot-making storm is a positive step forward.

"It's amazing, no, to spend my birthday playing against Rafa, learning from him, yeah, playing here in Madrid," Alcaraz said. "It could better if I could win, but I really enjoy. I really learn from him, and, yeah, I think this match made me grow up as a player.

"I really happy to spend my birthday like this."

In the final game, Nadal cleaned the sideline with a crosscourt forehand that left Alcaraz looking over the line and nodding in affirmation like a student absorbing the pages of a professor's thesis.

The 13-time Roland Garros champion slipped a break point in the opening game when Alcaraz flattened a forehand into net and broke for 2-0 when the teenager pasted a backhand into net.

On the third point of the third game, Nadal ran down a lob, spun and streaked forward for a drop shot. Alcaraz went back to the lob and Nadal soared to snap off a high backhand smash. The shot proved painful for Alcaraz, who leaped high trying to track down the smash apparently straining an abdominal muscle in the process.

As Nadal stepped up to serve, Alcaraz held up his hand clutching his rib cage area in discomfort. Nadal stopped play and Alcaraz walked to the sidelines to request a trainer visit for an apparent abdominal or rib issue. After a few minutes, Alcaraz returned to court and Nadal amped up his baseline assault charging through 10 consecutive points.

Twenty-seven minutes into the match, Nadal gave the home crowd a dose of vintage Rafa running left and slashing a forehand strike down the line to stretch his lead to 5-0.

Fans offered a sympathetic cheer and took shots from raised mobile phones as Alcaraz held to stop the shutout after 33 minutes.

A ruthless Nadal responded scoring his third shutout game of the set to snatch a one-set lead after 37 minutes. Nadal won 10 of 12 first-serve points and permitted just one point on serve over his final three service games of the set.  Alcaraz, perhaps pained by a strain or the pressure of facing the king of clay on the nation's largest tennis stage or both, managed one winner against 13 unforced errors in the opening set.

Could Alcaraz shake off the apparent pain from the injury and the baseline punishment from Nadal to make a match of it?

The world No. 120 double faulted and floated a forehand long dropping serve for the third time to start the second set.

Fifty-four minutes into the match, Alcaraz shook off the shackles and leaned into a rousing two-hander for his first break point sinc the first game. Nadal saved it with a crackling first serve. The teenager torched a forehand down the line for a second break point and rattled Nadal's racquet with another forehand drive down the line breaking for the first time.

That was a brief reprieve from the thrashing.

Tennis Express

Every time Alcaraz made some progress, Nadal ruthlessly snuffed out hope. Reading the wide serve, Nadal darted a dagger forehand down the line breaking right back at love for 4-1 with a jolting strike that drew gasps from some Spanish fans.

On his third match point, Nadal tomahawked a bounce smash closing a commanding conquest in 77 minutes.

In a classy touch, tournament director Feliciano Lopez brought out a massive chocolate cake for Alcaraz. As Spanish fans serenaded him with "Happy Birthday", a beaming Alcaraz soaked in the moment standing shoulder to shoulder with Nadal and Lopez for a post-match photo-op.

A birthday beat down is beginning of the road for Alcaraz, who will bounce back and learn from this lesson while Nadal improves to 53-12 in Madrid continuing his quest for a 36th Masters crown and sixth Madrid championship. 


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