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A joyous Carlos Alcaraz fought off exhaustion and a surging Casper Ruud to win his first Grand Slam title, and clinch No. 1
“I would say I overcame myself a little bit,” said the 19-year-old, who rediscovered the joy in tennis in New York.
Published Sep 12, 2022
The Break: We have a new No. 1; what a tournament
NEW YORK—Carlos Alcaraz had taken the long way to his first major final, at the US Open. He had spent more than 20 hours on court. His three previous matches had gone five sets and finished after midnight. In the fourth round and the semifinals, against Marin Cilic and Frances Tiafoe, he had led two sets to one and lost the fourth set, before closing it out in the fifth. In the quarterfinals, against Jannik Sinner, he had saved a match point.
A year ago, Novak Djokovic took a similarly energy-sapping route to the championship match in New York, and it cost him. By the final Sunday, he had no spring in his step, or pop in his serve, and he lost his chance at completing a Grand Slam. Some believed Alcaraz might suffer the same fate. Yes, he’s 19—Djokovic was 34 in 2021—but the Spaniard had to get tired eventually, right? One prediction service made him a surprisingly narrow favorite—52 to 48 percent—to beat Casper Ruud, even though Alcaraz was 4-0 in sets against the Norwegian. All of that time on court, and all of his mind-boggling court coverage, was clearly a concern.
Alcaraz was indeed tired in the final. He managed his way through a 6-4 opening set against Ruud, but he began to slow in the second and third. The miracle gets and out-of-nowhere winners weren’t materializing. In fact, Ruud, known primarily as a clay-court grinder, was proving to be his equal in the speed and shot-making departments. By the middle of the third, the momentum had shifted toward Ruud, and the pro-Alcaraz crowd had gone quiet. With the Spaniard serving at 5-6, Ruud put an Alcarazian, 95-m.p.h. forehand on the sideline to reach set point.
That turned out to be the high-water mark for Ruud. Instead of caving in physically, Alcaraz found a way to win. Instead of giving back a lead, the way he had so often over the last few months, he pressed his advantage and didn’t let his opponent hang around. He also, frankly, had some help from Ruud.
Alcaraz began by saving those set points at 5-6 with a stretch volley winner—not an easy shot—and a smash. It was just two points, but Ruud couldn’t forget them. In the tiebreaker, he went from making everything to missing everything, by a lot. After the first point, Ruud shanked a backhand, put a return in the net, shanked another backhand, hit a forehand well long, put another return in the net, and shanked a forehand. He lost it 7-1, and went from the verge of victory to the verge of defeat in a matter of minutes.
“That was the set that maybe decided the match,” Ruud said. “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.”
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. Carlos Alcaraz
Alcaraz had been granted new life, and he made the most of it. With the finish line in sight, the spectacular gets returned; one of them, a running topspin lob, helped him break serve at 3-2. Just as important, his serve surged.
Never has that shot been more important to him than it was in the final game. Serving for the title at 5-3, Alcaraz started with an ace and a volley winner. But then he missed the easiest smash imaginable. He needed two unreturnable serves to close; like the Slam champ he now is, he got them. He finished with an ace and a service winner, and never gave himself a chance to get tight. The final piece in the Alcaraz puzzle was in place.
“I would say, I mean, I overcome myself a little bit,” Alcaraz said. “I mean, yeah, I played a great matches, high intensity, during the two weeks that I’ve never done before.”
Coming to New York, Alcaraz was at a relative low point in his season. He had lost to Tommy Paul in Montreal and Cam Norrie in Cincinnati. His coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, could see he was frustrated and foundering a bit, so he gave him a new goal.
“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.”
Alcaraz was freed up by his new attacking mentality, and it paid dividends right away. He went 34 of 45 at net in the final.
“As Juan Carlos said, in Montreal and in Cincinnati I lost the joy a little bit,” Alcaraz concurred. “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.”
After losing one long point in the final, Alcaraz ended up flat on the court. And then he smiled. The joy was back, and his game was, too. Alcaraz wowed the world for two weeks with his exhilarating athleticism, and made thousands of new fans with his enthusiasm for what he does.
“He’s going to be a problem for a very long time,” Frances Tiafoe said after losing to Alcaraz in the semifinals. For other tennis players, yes, he’ll be a problem for a very long time. For tennis fans, though, Alcaraz should be a welcome sight, every time he steps on court, for just as long.