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NEXT GEN STEPS UP

Carlos Alcaraz’s US Open triumph previews the next chapter of men’s tennis

Carlos Alcaraz’s US Open triumph previews the next chapter of men’s tennis
Carlos Alcaraz celebrates winning the third-set tiebreak against Casper Ruud during the US Open final in Flushing Meadows, New York, on 11 September 2022. (Photo: Al Bello / Getty Images)

The Spanish star’s triumph at the year’s final Grand Slam might have ushered in a new era in the men’s game.

When Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer eventually loosen their stranglehold on the Grand Slams, pundits may view Carlos Alcaraz’s US Open victory on Sunday as heralding the changing of the guard in men’s tennis.

Having earned his reputation as one of the fiercest competitors among a hungry group of young challengers to the “Big Three”, Alcaraz’s win over Casper Ruud not only brought the 19-year-old Spaniard a first major title, but also made him the youngest world No 1 in ATP history. 

During his two-week journey in New York he collided with a host of other rising stars, offering the promise of exciting rivalries for fans to enjoy for many years to come.

He battled 21-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner in a thrilling five-set quarterfinal that did not finish until nearly 3am, before surviving another five-setter against 24-year-old American Frances Tiafoe. Tiafoe became the first black American man to make the semis of the tournament since Arthur Ashe in 1972.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Alcaraz and Sinner reveal the future of the men’s game

On Sunday, “Carlitos” avoided another punishing five-set match but still had to be at his athletic best to score a 6-4 2-6 7-6(1) 6-3 victory over 23-year-old Norwegian Ruud, who rises to No 2 in the world.

The Spaniard’s coach, former world No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, said there is no shortage of talent on the men’s Tour, but he came away from Alcaraz’s quarterfinal against Sinner thinking the pair could dominate for the next decade.

“The other day I said that maybe Sinner and Carlos could dominate the Tour for maybe the next 10 years, from what I saw, the level that I saw the other day,” he said.

“Of course, there’s other players like (Alexander) Zverev, (Dominic) Thiem, Casper, (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, they going to be there, they going to have opportunities to win Grand Slams for sure.”

Also making headlines at Flushing Meadows was fiery 27-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios, who had reached the Wimbledon final and knocked then world No 1 Daniil Medvedev out in the fourth round in New York.

Elevated tempo

But while the rising stars command more and more of the spotlight and help attract a younger and more diverse fan base to the sport, it would be premature to say the landscape has shifted.

Nadal won the first two Grand Slams of the year at Melbourne Park and Roland Garros.

Three-time US Open champion Djokovic, who was not able to travel to New York, having chosen not to be vaccinated against Covid-19, won Wimbledon.

The “Big Three” had won 20 of the past 23 majors coming into Sunday’s final and finished top of the world rankings in 17 of the past 18 years.

Carlos Alcaraz rocketed to the pinnacle of men’s tennis at the US Open on Sunday. (Photo: Julian Finney / Getty Images)

And while the 41-year-old Federer’s future in the sport remains uncertain, Nadal (36) is 38-5 (win/loss ratio) this year and Djokovic will be hungry to match or surpass the Spaniard’s record 22 Grand Slam titles when the new season begins in 2023.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Frances Tiafoe ‘no dark horse anymore’ after stunning Nadal at US Open

For ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe, however, the tide is starting to turn.

“It’s remarkable to watch Alcaraz play this game, how he’s elevated the tempo of this game along with Sinner and Tiafoe and other young guys,” he said on Sunday. “To me it really is the start, it’s not the finish, but it’s the start of the real changing of the guard in men’s tennis.”

Alcaraz finds joy

Alcaraz rocketed to the pinnacle of men’s tennis at the US Open on Sunday, a remarkable turnaround for the 19-year-old just weeks after he said he had lost some of his joy for the sport.

The New York crowd had taken the Spanish teen to their hearts in 2021 when he became the youngest man to reach a US Open quarterfinal.

After collecting a pair of Masters 1000 titles this year, Alcaraz looked set to push for his first major title in New York but suffered a crisis of confidence in Montreal last month, losing his opening match. He then exited the Cincinnati Open in the quarterfinals and said the pressure was getting to him.

“In Montreal and in Cincinnati I lost the joy a little bit,” said Alcaraz. “I felt the pressure. I couldn’t smile on court, which I’m doing in every match, every tournament.”

He arrived at Flushing Meadows determined to enjoy himself, he said, though the path to the final could scarcely have been more gruelling.


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He survived three consecutive five-setters before meeting the Norwegian on Sunday, though the bruising schedule seemed to have little impact on the supremely athletic Alcaraz.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “No title but Ruud takes self-belief from US Open

“He (was) born to play this kind of tournament, born to play these kinds of matches,” said Ferrero. “He’s a great competitor. He’s there. He’s trying all the time.”

Ferrero, the 2003 Roland Garros champion, said he recognised the “explosive” talent in Alcaraz right away, but they had to work hard to improve the physical side of his game.

“When he arrived to the academy when he was 15, he was like spaghetti, very thin. We had to work,” he told reporters. “We saw that he had very fast hands, very fast legs, but no muscles at all, not in the back, not in the legs. We had to work a lot. But obviously we saw something very special [in] him.”

Alcaraz collected his first ATP title a little more than a year ago in Croatia and has become the youngest world No 1 since the ATP rankings began in 1973.

But this is just the beginning, he said.

“I’m hungry for more. I want to be at the top for many, many weeks. [I] hope many years,” he told reporters. Reuters/DM

 

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  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Alcaraz has taken the game to a totally new level. Tennis is now athletic, explosive, powerful and gruelling.

    The stars of past era’s would be totally out of their depth against this lot

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