Like Michael Myers with a tennis racket, he just keeps coming. If we learned nothing else from Carlos Alcaraz’s sensational run to the US Open title, it’s that one would-be winner is rarely enough to stop him. Often two or three won’t do. For two weeks in New York, the best teenager in men’s tennis since Rafael Nadal nearly two decades ago turned would-be killshots into crowd-pleasing additions to his ever-expanding highlight reel, keeping points alive with his incomparable all-court movement, impeccable touch and taste for the fight. He is a hell of a player.
The record will show that Alcaraz formally became the youngest No. 1 in the history of the ATP’s world rankings with Sunday’s four-set win over the Norwegian Casper Ruud to capture his first grand slam title. But the 19-year-old from the small village of El Palmar on Spain’s southeastern coast practically earned his trophy in the run-up, surviving three consecutive five-set affairs to reach the title match, something no player had managed in 30 years.
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There was his five-setter in the fourth round against the 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic, which ended at 2.23am on Tuesday. Then a heart-stopping 5hr 15min quarter-final win from match-point down in the fourth against Jannik Sinner that ended before a few hundred fans at 2.50am, the latest finish in tournament history. And that was before he was again made to go the distance against Frances Tiafoe in the semi-finals, holding off both a home standing opponent brimming with confidence and the sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd squarely in the 24-year-old American’s corner.
As he bound towards the finish line on Sunday evening having earned the decisive break in the fourth set, Alcaraz had spent more time on court than any player at any grand slam tournament on record: 23 hours and 40 minutes by the end. Somehow, he still looked fresh as a daisy. “Yes [was] born to play this kind of tournament, born to play these kind of matches,” said his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, the former world No. 1 and 2003 French Open champion. “Since the moment I started with him, I saw some things that were different than the other guys at his age.
“He’s a great competitor. He’s there. He’s trying all the time.”
On one hand, all this talk of a changing of the guard feels a touch premature. Novak Djokovic, who was unable to travel to New York because he was not vaccinated against Covid-19, will be hotly tipped to win the Australian Open and to defend his Wimbledon crowd next year. Nadal, who won all but one of his 23 matches at majors this season, will be an even bigger favorite at Roland Garros.
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But on the other hand, seeing is believing. Alcaraz more than passes the eye test and there is reason to believe that the era of the Big Three could be giving way to the Big One sooner rather than later. The scary part is he’s only in his second full year on tour and there’s so much room for improvement. When his serve catches up to the other fully developed elements of his game, there may be no stopping him. “He’s one of those few rare talents that comes up every now and then in sports,” Ruud said after Sunday’s match. “That’s what it seems like. Let’s see how his career develops, but it’s going all in the right direction.”
Tempting as it may be in the dizzying aftermath, let’s not put Alcaraz down for 20 majors just yet. The last time we stumbled out of a US Open this bleary-eyed and dumbfounded by a prodigious, elemental men’s talent was 2009, when a 20-year-old Argentine named Juan Martín del Potro came from behind to defeat an imperial-era Roger Federer in a five-set classic, ending the Swiss master’s bid for a sixth straight US Open title. Ultimately, a future of unlimited promise not unlike Alcaraz’s today was cruelly undone by a series of wrist and knee injuries. And the ups and downs of the last teenager to win the US Open – Emma Raducanu – should be noted too.
But after becoming the first male teenager to win the US Open since Pete Sampras in 1990, the first to win at any major since Nadal at the 2005 French Open and the first to ever reach No. 1 in the world, the hype that preceded his title run has been largely justified. If he stays healthy, the sky is the limit.
“Right now I’m enjoying the moment,” he said. “I’m enjoying having the trophy in my hands. But of course I’m hungry for more. I want to be at the top for many, many weeks. I hope many years. I’m going to work hard again after these amazing two weeks. I’m going to fight to have more of this.”