Britain has a new king. It took him 73 years to ascend to the throne. We’ve known that royal forever. And now tennis has a new ruler. The future King Carlos first drew our attention last year amidst a slew of comparisons to his countryman, Rafa Nadal. But soon it was clear that the bounding Spaniard was a singular talent. He set records as the youngest player to win 250 and 500 level tournaments.
“I think he is going to be quite good,” quipped prescient broadcaster Eleanor Preston. Rafa himself offered a ringing endorsement: “The energy, the speed on the run and the passion and determination to become a great champion. He’s humble [enough] to work hard…His level is top – top.”
Alcaraz beat Nadal and Djokovic in Madrid in front of the king of Spain and almost beat the king of clay, Nadal, in a dust storm at Indian Wells. One broadcaster gushed, “He is the miracle man…He explodes with aggression – he’s a force of nature…The kid’s unreal. It’s not just his power, it’s the vision and the creativity.”
Plus he sure likes the New York stage. At last year’s US Open, he outlasted Stefanos Tsitsipas, and this year he became, with Stefan Edberg and Andre Agassi, only the third man to win three five-set matches in a row to reach the final. His fourth-round match stretched to 2:13 AM, his quarterfinals match finished at 2:50 AM and he subdued the most magnetic of all young Americans, Frances Tiafoe, in the semis.
This year’s Open was filled with adrenaline-packed matches and compelling narratives. But the final was a statistical wonder. It was the first final with two men competing for both their first Grand Slam title and the world No. 1 ranking. The first Grand Slam men’s final with two players who had never been World No. 1 competing for top ranking. And – follow us here – this was the first time the men’s No. 1 ranking would be determined at the US Open since 2003.
After saving two break points in the first game, Alcaraz, then the No. 4 player in the world, hit a brilliant swinging volley and broke on his fourth break point to go up 2-1. As Spaniards chanted “Ole! Ole! Ole!” Alcaraz would go on to charge forward with confidence and to win 9 of 11 exchanges at the net. He hit 13 winners to secure the first set in 49 minutes. Why, we wondered, were there so few signs of fatigue or nerves? But Carlos displayed plenty of explosive power, uncanny anticipationm a slew of delicate dropshots and his top-of-the-class tennis IQ.
Twitter was soon debating whether to call him Carlitos, or was Carlos okay? And whether we could compare his forehand and movement with Federer’s, whether his great elastic stretches and ability to punish from the baseline were similar to Djokovic’s and whether his singular will power and charisma were Rafa-esque.
But, guess what? Alcaraz soon showed that he’s imperfect. He muffed a volley and suddenly hit suspect dropshots. Casper, who in no way is a ghost, broke for the first time. The usually contained Scandinavian offered a fierce fist pump as he went up 4-2.
Alcaraz failed to convert two key break points, muffed a volley and hit numerous problematic drop shots. Ruud, who was as calm as a Fjord on a quiet Norwegian summer night, returned serve from the Bronx, hit winners and broke twice to grab the momentum. He won four straight games to capture the second set 6-2.
Now the Spaniard showed flashes of frustration. John McEnroe said, “He’s actually human. It has actually caught up with him a little bit.” Was Carlos finally feeling the effect of all of his marathon matches? Were his legs heavy? Had he lost just a small measure of his run-and-blast explosiveness? Jon Wertheim thought so. “Alacarz is beginning to look like a player whose last three matches finished in the infomercial hours.”
Now that Ruud had at last won a set off of Carlos in five tries in his career, the small cluster of Norwegians in Ashe Stadium were hoping he might become tennis’s fourth Scandinavian Grand Slam champion. The two young combatants traded breaks in the critically important third set. Then Alcaraz, who’s a bit of a tactical genius, saved two set points, blasted a feel-good overhead, riled up the crowd and forced a tiebreak. Throughout much of his career, Alcaraz has somehow known how to bring it at crunch time. He took advantage of a stunning loss of form from Ruud, who botched a backhand and easy forehands that allowed Carlos to escape from Alcatraz, so to speak. The Spaniard collected the tiebreak 7-1. In the sixth game of the fourth set, Carlos hit a devilishly effective defensive lob and scored a massive break to go up 4-2.
Now one of the greatest finish lines in all of tennis was in sight. You might imagine the kid would blink. But Alcaraz has shown us a certain made-for-glory spirit that time and again helps him navigate turbulent waters.
Fittingly, on his second championship point, he unleashed an ace, to grab history. He won 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(1), 6-3. Long ago Carlos was crystal clear. His dream was to be No. 1. Now the newly minted US Open champion was rolling on the ground in glee and disbelief.
Like Pete Sampras after his 2002 win, he weaved his way through the crowd. Like his fellow Spaniard Carlos Moya had when he’d became No. 1, Carlos had a grand group hug and joyous dance. The first teen to win a Slam and become No. 1 at the same time knew he’d written yet another glorious chapter in Spanish tennis history (Nadal had won two Slams this year and Spaniard Martin Landaluce won the Open juniors).
Like Emma Raducanu last year, the US Open had a brilliant 19-year-old winner. And the son of a Christian (Ruud’s father Christian is his coach), Casper had to accept the same fate as tennis’ most famous Muslim. Both the Norwegian and Ons Jabeur lost two heartbreaking Slams in a matter of three months.
Soon Carlos was crying through his smiles as he thought of his mother and his grandfather back in Spain. Adept on court and off, he poignantly noted that today was the anniversary of 9/11.
When asked about his mind-boggling endurance, he replied, “A Grand Slam final is no time to be tired.” His coach Juan Carlos Ferrero said Alcaraz was “born to be a champion. Since the moment that I started with him I saw something that was different.” Ferrero was asked, “is this the beginning of the Alcaraz era?” He sighed, but then added. “Jannik Sinner and Carlos could dominate for the next ten years…Carlos is only at 60% of his game. He can improve a lot of things.” Now that’s frightening.
Alcaraz confided that he sensed he could win a Slam after won the Miami Open in April. But he admitted he had lost a little bit of happiness after the Cincinnati tournament. “I lost joy a little bit. I couldn’t smile on court. I came here just to enjoy, to smile…”
When Inside Tennis asked him to sum up his two weeks of magic at the Open, Carlos replied, “I’m just going to say happy, because I was happy on court.” He added, “This is something I’ve dreamt of since I was a kid.” And fans left the arena sensing that this generational talent is now poised to give us glory for decades.