In December, when I visited Carlos Alcaraz and his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, at the academy where they are based in the stark countryside of Villena, Spain, both calmly and reasonably explained that the goal for 2022 was to break into the top 15.
So much for calm and reason.
On Sunday, Alcaraz became a Grand Slam champion by winning the men’s singles title at the U.S. Open and, at 19, the youngest No. 1 player since the ATP rankings were created nearly 50 years ago.
In December, Alcaraz trained on a hardcourt with Ferrero near the back of the academy grounds with just a few people observing as they picked up their own balls amid the peace and quiet.
So much for peace and quiet.
Sunday’s four-set victory over Casper Ruud of Norway was secured in a sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium with the roars of nearly 24,000 fans rumbling off the closed retractable roof as Alcaraz lunged and leaped straight into the winner’s circle and the collective consciousness.
To be honest, a star was already born.
Alcaraz ticked that big box quite some time ago when he upset the likes of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal this season on his acrobatic, gravity-defying way to trophies on tour and early acclaim.
But no matter how clear the potential and how dynamic the game, you never truly know what a tennis player is capable of until they have to fight for the biggest points on the biggest occasions.
Sunday was one of those moments, and now he and we know for certain that Alcaraz is the mega-talent that men’s tennis was anxiously hoping would surface with the Big Three — Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer — riding toward the fading light.
Alcaraz, as truly exceptional players do, has arrived at some of the usual way stations on the road to success and stepped on the accelerator pedal instead of pulling over.
Pete Sampras was also 19 when he rode his supreme serve and running forehand to win the 1990 U.S. Open men’s singles title. Nadal, Alcaraz’s fellow Spaniard, was 19, too, when he arrived at his first French Open in 2005 and ran the table against his elders without even being pushed to a fifth set.
Alcaraz now belongs in the same paragraph even if he never made it look remotely that easy in New York. He had to save a match point against Jannik Sinner of Italy in the quarterfinals. That was part of him winning three five-set matches in a row that finished near midnight or well after and kept him from going to sleep until much of the city was starting to wake up.
And all that was just to reach the final, where a letdown would have been entirely understandable. But Alcaraz was having none of it, even if there were some moments in the second and third sets where his energy levels seemed to dip and his full-cut groundstrokes lacked some of their customary punch.
But as champions do, he found a way, and as not all champions do, he did so by attacking when threatened rather than playing the waiting game.
Serving in the 12th game of the third set, he saved one set point by approaching the net and hitting a deft angled forehand volley winner. He saved the next by serving and volleying and finishing off the point with an overhead shot. He won the game with a lunging backhand lob that sent Ruud scrambling back to the baseline, where he hit a tweener that Alcaraz, back at the net, punched away to force a tiebreaker with the crowd giving him nothing but positive feedback.
There is no need to bury the Big Three just yet.
Federer’s glory days are very likely done at age 41, and he has not played in more than a year. But Nadal, at 36, won two major titles this year and has had a marvelous, reaffirming season. Djokovic just won Wimbledon and, despite being unvaccinated against Covid-19, looks very likely to be granted permission by the Australian government to defend the old guard against Alcaraz and the new wave in January at the Australian Open, which Djokovic has won a record nine times.
But Sunday’s final and this U.S. Open as a whole sent a clear message: men’s tennis will have a strong heartbeat long after its long-running icons are gone.
This was appointment viewing, too, a day when two hungry young men were chasing their first major title and the No. 1 ranking at the same time.
This was a first, and what made it better yet was that this was big-time all-court tennis, brimming with risk and reward as roars of approval and occasional disbelief rumbled through the Thunderdome of Ashe Stadium.
Alcaraz, down to earth off the court, is a human highlight reel with a racket in hand: ideally suited to a social-media age where bite-size brilliance is the coin of the realm. But Ruud, less obviously charismatic, showed plenty of panache himself, hunting down drop shots, ripping bold forehand winners, countering Alcaraz’s injections of pace and hustling to keep points and his chances alive.
He also showed welcome and remarkable sportsmanship, calling a double bounce on himself in the second set that the chair umpire had missed, thereby awarding the point to Alcaraz, who clearly appreciated the gesture.
It was a final played in that sort of Corinthian spirit despite all that was at stake.
Ruud was close to turning it, closer than the four-set score line will indicate, but he lost his edge and his rhythm when he needed it most: mistiming shot after shot in the third-set tiebreaker that gave Alcaraz fresh hope and a much clearer view of the finish line.
“He has such an incredible fighting spirit,” said Ruud, still searching for his first major title after losing to Nadal in straight sets at this year’s French Open final.
Ruud is well placed to note the common thread between the two Spanish champions, born nearly 17 years apart. Alcaraz might have grown up admiring Federer’s flair and net-rushing skills, but like Nadal, he clearly relishes the fight as he proved again and again in New York. He delights not just in having won a match but in the process that leads to winning.
“It is what makes Carlos special,” Ferrero said during my visit in December. “Many players like to compete but not so many look forward to playing the biggest points. Carlos does, and I think that is a very good sign for the future.”
Ferrero, who clinched the No. 1 ranking by reaching the final of the 2003 U.S. Open won by Andy Roddick, remains an unexcitable sort, but even he was struggling to keep his composure down the stretch on Sunday, extending his palms to the team to maintain calm while his strained expression was sending a rather different message.
Who could blame him? He sensed something special in Alcaraz when he saw him in his early teens at a low-level professional tournament in Spain: He saw him hit drop shots and rush the net without fear; sensed his ability to adapt his game to the opposition; sensed that he had extra gears on his extra gears.
But he also had a long-term view in mind.
“Above all, he told me not to be in a hurry,” Alcaraz explained in December. “That I’m going to get the experience and play the tournaments and learn the ropes, and that there’s no need to get ahead of the process. I need to live all these moments and not be in a hurry for the results right away.”
So much for not being in a hurry.