Is Carlos Alcaraz really better at 21 than Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal were?

Carlos Alcaraz 'Big Three'
How does Carlos Alcaraz compare to the 'Big Three' aged 21?

Carlos Alcaraz is the talk of the tennis world after his stunning French Open triumph.

The Spaniard is now 3-0 in Grand Slam finals, has won Slams for three straight seasons, and is the youngest man to complete the ‘Surface Slam.’

Having turned 21 just a few weeks ago, the world No 2’s success has been staggering, and the star is already drawing comparisons to the three greatest male players in history.

Not one to shy away from a strong opinion, John McEnroe delivered the boldest of assessments when discussing Alcaraz in context to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.

Speaking to Eurosport, McEnroe said: “He’s already better than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic at 21.

“He’s the most skilled young man I’ve ever seen at this age. It’s hard to believe he can keep improving as he is already so good at everything.”

It was a sentiment later echoed by Boris Becker, but comparisons to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic – who have won a combined 66 major titles – always raise an eyebrow or two.

But, as the Spaniard targets more titles in the future, how do his achievements stack up compared to the ‘Big Three’ at the same stage in their careers?

John McEnroe compares Carlos Alcaraz to ‘Big 3’ as he claims French Open glory

Grand Slam titles

Alcaraz’s French Open title was the third major win of his career, after his 2022 US Open and 2023 Wimbledon victories.

Of the ‘Big Three’, only Nadal won three Slams at a marginally younger age.

At 21 years and seven days, the Spaniard was just a few weeks younger than Alcaraz when he lifted his third straight Roland Garros title in 2007.

Alcaraz has had more success across all surfaces, winning his first three titles across hard, grass, and clay.

But Nadal had reached a further Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 2006 and again reached the final at the All England Club as a 21-year-old in 2007 – losing to Federer in both matches.

Djokovic was just a few months shy of his 21st birthday when he won his first Slam at the 2008 Australian Open, having also reached the US Open final in 2007.

But he had to wait until 2011 to win his second, third, and fourth Slams, so Alcaraz is ahead of him as it stands.

He is also ahead of Federer, who was 21 when he claimed his first major at Wimbledon in 2003, celebrating his 22nd birthday just over a month later.

Overall titles

Alcaraz’s victory this weekend saw him win his 14th career title, and eighth ‘big’ title overall.

Alongside his three major victories, he has also won five Masters 1000 titles and has a 14-4 record in finals overall.

Here, he is behind Nadal, who – before turning 22 during the 2008 French Open – had won 26 career titles, with a further eight runner-up finishes.

Coupled with his three Roland Garros titles at this point were an impressive 11 Masters 1000 victories, with multiple titles in Monte Carlo and Rome among his successes.

But Alcaraz does sit just ahead of Djokovic in terms of titles won at 21, with Djokovic’s 13th career title coming at the Serbia Open in 2009 – just before his 22nd birthday.

Current world No 3 Djokovic had also not won as many Masters 1000 titles, just below the Spaniard on four victories, but he did win the ATP Finals as a 21-year-old in 2008 – a title Alcaraz is yet to win.

Federer’s SW19 triumph in 2003 was the ninth title of his career and his final before turning 22, while he only had one Masters 1000 victory to his name at that stage.

Carlos Alcaraz joins Rafael Nadal on list of 6 youngest men to win three Grand Slam titles

Weeks at No 1

Alcaraz is the youngest No 1 in ATP history, being only 19 when he took the top spot for the first time in September 2022 – following his US Open win.

To date he has 36 weeks as No 1, having last held the top ranking before he fell in the semi-final of his title defence in New York last September.

However, none of Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer was ranked world No 1 as a 21-year-old.

Nadal was the youngest of the three to rise to the spot, doing so as a 22-year-old in August 2008 – following on from back-to-back French Open and Wimbledon wins.

Federer rose to world No 1 as a 22-year-old after winning the 2004 Australian Open while Djokovic was the oldest of the four, taking the No 1 ranking as a 24-year-old in July 2011 after winning his first Wimbledon title.

Is he better?

Nadal beats him in terms of the number of titles won, but in every other stat, Alcaraz is ahead of all of the ‘Big Three’ at this point.

Having only turned 21 in May, he may achieve even more before he turns 22 next year.

However, just because he is ahead of them does not mean we should automatically assume he will match – and potentially eclipse – their records.

To hit 20+ Slams as the ‘Big Three’ have done will take immense consistency and longevity over several years; who knows how long Alcaraz will play for, how long he will be in peak form, or when injuries may strike.

It must also be mentioned that while having accomplished less at this stage, Federer would dominate the sport during his mid-20s while Djokovic began his first extended period of dominance at 23.

Alcaraz is a unique talent and more Slam wins look likely – but he has a long way to go to match Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer.