Carlos Alcaraz’s Twitter bio, though short, encapsulates the 19-year-old’s philosophy towards the game. “Tennis player. Always 100.”
On Sunday night in front of a packed crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Alcaraz gave his 100% and then some to beat Casper Ruud 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3 in the US Open final to clinch his first Grand Slam title. In the process, Alcaraz became the youngest ever world No 1 in ATP rankings history at 19 years and four months.
Throughout his Grand Slam record stay on court of 23 hours and 40 minutes in New York over the last two weeks, Alcaraz was the personification of the Duracell bunny... endlessly running around the court and getting to shots he had no right to reach.
Coming into the final, Alcaraz had spent 20 hours and 20 minutes on court and had wowed the late-night crowds in three thrilling five-set matches from the fourth round onwards.
In a nearly four-hour match against 2014 US Open winner Marin Cilic, the teenager fought back after going a break down in the fifth set. In the five-hour marathon against Jannik Sinner, Alcaraz saved a match point in the fourth set before mounting an incredible comeback.
In the semifinal, Frances Tiafoe gave everything he had, led by a set, played sensational tennis with all the backing of the crowd, and yet was unable to overcome the Spaniard.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, for sure. He’s so young. He hits the ball so hard. I never played a guy who moves as well as him, honestly. I’ve seen him get a lot of balls, but I was hitting some drop volleys that I’ve been hitting. He’s getting there. How he’s able to extend points, incredible,” Tiafoe had said after his loss.
“He’s a hell of a player. He’s going to be a problem for a very long time.”
Still only 19 and with the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the final leg of their careers (at differing stages), Alcaraz will indeed prove to be a “problem” for a long, long time.
Sunday’s final was not just the first to be competed by two men looking to win their first Grand Slam final, but also by two men aiming to be the world No 1 for the first time.
In their previous two meetings, Alcaraz had swept aside Ruud without losing a single set. The Norwegian also held a 0-5 losing record against top 10 players in Grand Slams. And yet, Alcaraz came into it with just even chances with the fatigue from playing three tiring five setters expected to finally catch up with the Spaniard.
“I always say that there’s no time to be tired. In the finals of the grand slam or any tournament. You have to give everything on court, you have to give anything you have inside,” the Spaniard had said of the final.
Alcaraz showed no signs of any tiredness, however, in the first set as he began with all cylinders firing, breaking Ruud in the fourth game. Alcaraz ran Ruud ragged with his dazzling combination of ferocious groundstrokes and deceptively delicate drop shots that he has already earned a reputation for. Ruud, one of the fittest players on tour, covered more distance but was unable to halt the marauding Spaniard.
But he would find the answer in the second set as Alcaraz finally seemed to feel the effect of the trials he had put himself through over the past two weeks. The drop shots stopped being deceptive enough and the groundstrokes lost their accuracy.
Ruud, on the other hand, finally got the hang of the Alcaraz drop shot as he started matching the Spaniard at his own game at the net. The Norwegian went after Alcaraz’s second serve, winning six out of those 10 points in the second set. The forehand finally did enough damage to break down the Spaniard’s resistance to get Ruud back into the match at one set apiece.
Alcaraz’s philosophy of giving his 100% hampered him at times as he hurried into points where playing the waiting game would have perhaps helped him more. At that point, the frustrations had started to creep in.... the man who had the crowd on its feet so long the last past week, playing thrilling tennis, just went off the boil.
That’s when the turnaround had to happen.
In the American swing, Alcaraz seemed to have lost the early season drive and momentum which had seen him beat Nadal and Djokovic on the way to his first Masters title in Madrid. He suffered a first-round exit in Montreal and lost to Cameron Norrie in Cincinnati.
“One of the things that I talked to him after Cincinnati, that he maybe lose a little bit his happiness on the court, maybe worrying about numbers and tournaments, not about his game,” Ferrero said. “I gave him the advice to go to the net on any ball that it was short. So we tried to practice the whole week this. It’s like he start to feel better on the court, going for any ball that he has short. He felt very well.”
Even as his game waned, Alcaraz did not show signs of crumbling under pressure.
“Since I won Miami, I thought I was able to have a Grand Slam in my hands. But before Miami, I was thinking that I have to still grow up,” he said.
“As Juan Carlos said, in Montreal and in Cincinnati I lost the joy a little bit. I felt the pressure. I couldn’t smile on court, which I’m doing in every match, every tournament. I came here just to enjoy, you know? To smile on court, to enjoy playing tennis. I love playing tennis, of course. I would say if I smile, if I have fun out there, I saw my best level, my best tennis.”
‘Head, heart and balls’
Though he found the first break in the third set, Alcaraz still showed signs of rust. Ruud had also begun returning from way behind the baseline to deny Alcaraz easy serve and volley points. Ruud crunched two big forehand winners down the line as he twice came close to breaking an under-pressure Alcaraz serving at 6-5 in the set.
Any other player in Alcaraz’s situation would have ditched the serve and volley tactic and would have focused on extending the rallies. Not the teenager though.
Cabeza, corazón, cojones (Spanish for head, heart and balls): After his stunning win against Nadal in Madrid, Alcaraz revealed that whenever he finds himself in difficult situations, he goes back to his grandfather’s motto of playing smart and courageous tennis with a heaping spoon of bravado.
The teen saved one set point with a delightful volleyed winner only to see Ruud rocket a crosscourt forehand passing winner to bring up another set point. Once again, Alcaraz trusted his serve and volley to fight back and force the tie-break.
The back-to-the-walls hold proved to be the catalyst for Alcaraz’s revival as he dominated Ruud to win the tie-break 7-1 and take the third set. That third set loss, Ruud would say later, was the turning point of the match.
“That was the set that maybe decided the match. It was one set each, very close, and a long third set. I played a horrible tiebreak, unfortunately too many mistakes. Sort of couldn’t get those set points out of my head,” said Ruud.
The end of the third set seemingly sapped Ruud of his mental and physical energy while the opposite happened for Alcaraz, as he powered himself to a first Grand Slam title. Surely, the first of many.
“Right now I’m enjoying the moment. I’m enjoying have the trophy in my hands but of course, I’m hungry for more. I want to be in the top for many, many weeks and I hope many years. I’m going to work hard again after this week, these amazing two weeks. I’m going to fight to have more of this,” Alcaraz said.
For so long, men’s tennis wondered and debated about the Next Gen after the all-time great era. In Alcaraz, the next to next to next generation has finally found a player primed to break the Big Three’s stranglehold over Grand Slams. In the last two weeks in New York, a new king seems to have begun his reign that could well last for a while.