“I am prepared, I am confident, I am also ready physically and mentally. Maybe it’s not Roland Garros, but I can win a Grand Slam this year. And I’m not afraid to say it.” — A highly confident Carlos Alcaraz, after winning his third title of the year at Barcelona.
“ It is clear: [Carlos Alcaraz] is my successor. Over the months ahead that will become clear. He is better than me in various aspects of the game.” — Rafael Nadal, after Carlos Alcaraz beat Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev, became the first player since David Nalbandian in 2007 to defeat three top-four players at a single Masters 1000 event at the Madrid Open.
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Those worried about the future of men’s tennis when the legendary Big Three retire, fret no more. A wildly talented Spanish teenager has arrived. He brings the competitive zest of a boy, the diligent professionalism of a tour veteran, and the charisma that appeals to sports fans, not just tennis lovers, around the world.
Incredibly, Carlos Alcaraz, the new U.S. Open champion and World No. 1, is a brilliant amalgam of each of the Big Three. Start with the jaw-dropping athleticism and scintillating shot-making of Roger Federer. Add the technical perfection and blazing speed of Novak Djokovic. Finish this otherworldly creation with the fierce competitiveness and rugged physicality of Rafael Nadal.
This down-to-earth wunderkind seems too good to be true for an individual sport that thrives on superstars. And the timing could not have been more propitious.
Djokovic sat out the year’s final Grand Slam, a tournament he won three times, because he refused to get a Covid vaccination. Federer remains sidelined while recovering from knee surgeries. And Alexander Zverev, the Olympic gold medallist and 2020 U.S. Open runner-up, is still rehabbing after tearing ankle ligaments during a fall at Roland Garros.
Although Nadal played Flushing Meadows, he appeared hampered during his four-set loss to Frances Tiafoe by the painful abdominal tear that forced him to default at Wimbledon. On whether his loss portended the end of the Big Three era, a philosophical Nadal said, “It signifies that the years go by. It’s the circle of life.”
Tiafoe, the 24-year-old American son of emigrants from Sierra Leone, memorably called Nadal, who hadn’t previously lost this year at a major, “one of the Mount Rushmore guys.” Indeed, Nadal sits atop the pantheon of tennis immortals and the record books with 22 Grand Slam titles. But he and Djokovic, who has 21, will have to wait until next year to add to their extraordinary totals.
When they return, however, the ageless superstars will face the new kid on the block, a whiz kid who has already defeated them at a Masters 1000 event and keeps getting better and better. Alcaraz passed every test at Flushing Meadows, particularly for physical and mental toughness, the hallmark of champions.
After quickly overpowering three early-round opponents, the muscular 6’1” Spaniard faced 15th-seeded Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion. At 33, Cilic is far from over the hill as his semifinal performance at Roland Garros proved. Going for broke with power to avoid playing defence, the 6’6” Croat had Alcaraz on the ropes when he broke the Spaniard’s serve to start the fifth set. Alcarez broke back twice to pull out the 3-hour, 54-minute duel at 2:23 a.m. and dropped to his knees.
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When asked how he won, Alcaraz praised his vanquished foe and thanked the loyal crowd. “Honestly, I have no idea,” he said. “It was pretty, pretty tough at the beginning of the fifth set [being a] break down. Marin was playing unbelievable. But I believe in myself all the time. Of course, the support today in Arthur Ashe was crazy. Without you guys, it wouldn’t be possible to win this match tonight, so thank you very much for the support.”
Records are made to be broken, but let’s hope not for late-night finishes. The U.S. Open is notorious for punishing players and fans with them due to its flawed scheduling. The evening sessions, which feature a men’s match followed by a women’s match, or vice versa, should start at 6 p.m., not 7 p.m., which almost guarantees post-midnight endings.
The eagerly awaited quarterfinal pitted Alcaraz against another rising star, Jannik Sinner, who extended eventual champion Djokovic to five sets at Wimbledon. Sinner saved five set points at 5-6 in the second set. The best shot of the tournament — and dazzling shots abounded in every Alcaraz match — came in that critical game. Down game point with Sinner serving, Alcaraz unbelievably conjured a leaping, behind-the-back backhand passing shot. Accurate and low, it elicited a weak volley, which Alcaraz then struck for a backhand crosscourt passing shot winner. Alcaraz pumped his fist and smiled.
Sinner escaped another set point with an ace at 6-7 in the 9-7 tiebreaker to even the match at a set each. The firepower was so explosive and shot selection so creative that ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe remarked, “You’re watching the sport change right now — the shotmaking, the playing level, the evolution, everything.” Alcaraz saved a match point in the fourth set when Sinner’s crosscourt backhand landed in the alley. Alcaraz pumped his fist as much in relief as in delight. He then reversed the momentum and broke serve twice to grab the fourth set, 7-5.
Around 2 p.m. the two young warriors battled fearlessly and valiantly for the deciding set. Amazingly, neither looked tired (or sleepy). When they exchanged service breaks in the fifth and sixth games, it was impossible to predict the winner of this fluctuating marathon. Sinner blinked first. In the eighth game, Alcaraz ended a furious rally with a crosscourt backhand passing shot to earn a break point. The deflated Sinner then netted a backhand to lose his serve. A rare body serve ace on match point gave Alcaraz a 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-7 (0), 7-5, 6-3 triumph at 2:50 a.m., a record latest ending at the U.S. Open. The 5-hour, 15-minute match length marked the second-longest in terms of time.
The resilient Spaniard went down on his knees and collapsed on his back. When he picked himself up, he flexed his biceps, pointed to his box, tapped his heart and waved to the crowd.
Alcaraz still had enough energy to talk to the crowd, saying, “I still don’t know how I did it. You have to believe in yourself all the time. I believe in myself and in my game.”
And that’s not all. He stayed a while longer to sign autographs and take photos with his admiring fans.
The other feel-good men’s story involved Tiafoe, whose exuberance and bold shotmaking won both matches and legions of new fans. After he upset 14th-seeded Diego Schwartzman, Nadal, and ninth-seeded Andrey Rublev, “Big Foe,” as he’s called by his friends, took on Alcaraz in a blockbuster semifinal. (For the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1881, all four men were making their semifinal debuts.)
Tiafoe, who had won their only previous meeting, boasted a perfect 6-0 tiebreaker record during the fortnight and exuded confidence. “I’m here to win the U.S. Open,” he proclaimed. “I want to go all the way.”
Wearing a bracelet that said, “Why not me. Why not now.”, and cheered on by former First Lady Michelle Obama, Tiafoe took the first set tiebreaker 8-6 when Alacaraz surprisingly double-faulted on Tiafoe’s fifth set point. Alcaraz rebounded strongly to take the next two sets 6-3 and 6-1 and surged ahead 3-1 in the fourth set. When “Big Foe” rallied to force a tiebreaker, Alcaraz didn’t appear bothered by the raucous pro-Tiafoe crowd, which sometimes cheered during points, a breach of outdated tennis etiquette. Spectators energised the determined American who shouted to his partisans, “I’m putting my heart in the f---ing match.” He won the do-or-die tiebreaker 7-5 and then thumped his chest.
But Tiafoe’s Cinderella story ended when the indomitable Alcaraz broke his serve three times in the deciding set for a 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3 victory and a berth in his first Grand Slam final. Alcaraz then fell on his back — apparently his new victory gesture — and embraced Tiafoe.
A bitterly disappointed Tiafoe told the crowd, “I gave it everything I had against Carlos tonight. I gave it everything I had for the last two weeks. I will come back, and I’ll win this someday. Sorry, guys.”
On the other half of the draw, fifth-seeded Casper Ruud, the low-key son of former world-class player Christian Ruud, also reached his first U.S. Open final but with less drama and fanfare. Ruud survived a five-set battle with much-improved Tommy Paul, the 29th-seeded American. Then he polished off 2021 Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini in a 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 quarterfinal.
The final featured a battle of wits as much as a battle of shots. Both wanted to control the centre of the court and play inside the baseline as much as possible. Alcaraz, a terrific volleyer, especially wanted to get to the net any chance he could. Ruud wanted to return the Alcaraz serve consistently so he positioned himself 10 to 20 feet behind the baseline.
Alcaraz took the opening set by fending off break points in the second and fourth games and breaking serve in the third game for 3-2. In a match filled with highlight-reel shots, one of the most dazzling came in that crucial game when Alcaraz ended a powerful rally with a lunging forehand volley winner to earn a triple break point. The nerveless teenager won eight of 10 points at the net and hit 36% of his groundstrokes — versus only 19% for Ruud — from inside the baseline. (Alcaraz wound up winning 34 of 45 net points for a superb 76%.)
Although Alcaraz was usually a smart tactician, his penchant for crowd-pleasing drop shots backfired in the second set when he often missed them or hit weak ones that Ruud punished. As Patrick McEnroe pointed out, “Alcaraz is the best we’ve seen to use his speed on offence since Roger Federer.” Hitting a much-improved 45% of his groundstrokes from inside the baseline to control and extend rallies, Ruud took the second set 6-2.
Emitting a loud grunt with every shot, Alcaraz staved off two set points, serving at 5-6 in the third set. The first on a lunging forehand volley winner; the second on an overhead. Carlos held serve thanks to a great lob that induced Ruud to hit a “tweener”. The entertaining point ended with Alcaraz’s overhead winner. Aside from an ace to start the tiebreaker, Rudd repeatedly erred to donate the 7-1 tiebreaker to Alcaraz. Surprisingly, it was the first tiebreaker he won at the Open after losing four.
Alcaraz enjoys a symbiotic relationship with spectators. His passion and competitiveness engage them, and their applause energises him. Spanish fans waved banners and yelled “Ole! Ole” during the fifth set. Returning big serves and producing backhand winners a la Djokovic, the Spaniard got the only service break he needed to pull ahead 4-2. He pounded two aces and a forehand winner for a 5-2 lead. Before the final game, the crowd gave both players a loud ovation. Two more aces and a nifty low forehand volley winner helped wrap up the 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3 title match.
“That’s one of the all-time greatest efforts you’ll ever see, beyond belief, for a 19-year-old,” praised John McEnroe.
In their speeches to the crowd, Alcaraz and Ruud expressed their sympathy to the families of the 9/11 victims. Explaining why he cried when hugging his family and team in the Player’s Box, Alcaraz said, “I was thinking of my mother and grandfather who weren’t here.”
Winning a Grand Slam title and becoming No.1, Alcaraz said, “is something I’ve dreamt of ever since I was a kid.”
Serena bids farewell; Swiatek dominates field
Serena stole the show during the first week of the U.S. Open, her farewell tournament. Before her first-round match, the announcer intoned, “The greatest of all time, Serena Williams.” The admiring crowd gave the 40-year-old former queen a loud and long standing ovation. With sparkles on her dress and in her hair, Serena came through with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over journeywoman Danka Kovinic.
Then Serena turned back the clock to her halcyon days with a stunning 7-6, 2-6, 6-2 upset over world No. 2 Anett Kontaveit. How long could the Serena Show last? “That third set was high enough to win this championship,” ESPN analyst Pam Shriver raved.
Twenty-three years ago the teenage Serena shocked the sports world by taking her first Grand Slam title on the same Arthur Ashe Stadium court. Could history repeat itself one last time? Spectators oohed and aahed on every Serena shot in her third-round battle against Ajla Tomljanovic. Their cheers grew thunderous when their heroine took the second-set tiebreaker to even the match. Alas, their high hopes and those of her millions of fans worldwide were dashed as the tiring Serena finally succumbed 7-5, 6-7, 6-1. Fighting off tears, the consensus GOAT of women’s tennis told the crowd, “It’s been a fun ride. It’s been the most incredible journey, ride, I’ve ever been in.”
The second week, however, belonged just as emphatically to Iga Swiatek. Also a teenage champion, Swiatek won the first of her two French Opens two years ago at 19. This year the understated Pole, a sharp contrast to the colourful, controversial Serena, showed why she’s a worthy successor as the new Queen of Tennis.
From February to June, Swiatek reeled off 37 straight victories, the longest winning streak this century. During that span, she captured six tournaments — Doha, Indian Wells, and Miami on hard courts followed by Stuttgart, Rome, and Paris (Roland Garros) on clay. All told, Swiatek amassed nine titles in her short but brilliant career, amazingly dominating every final in straight sets, most of them lopsided. “Iga The Closer” would be an apt nickname for someone who hasn’t lost a final since she was 17.
The semifinals pitted what ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe called “arguably the best athlete against arguably the biggest hitter.” The latter was Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, one of two players banned from Wimbledon — along with Russian Karen Khachanov — to make the semis. The volatile Sabakenka had lost all three matches against Swiatek this year as well as her two previous Grand Slam semifinals 6-4 in the third set, including one to heavy underdog Leylah Fernandez here a year ago. Conversely, Iga had won eight straight matches versus top 10 opponents.
In the second round, sixth-seeded Sabalenka pulled off a miraculous escape. Down 6-2, 5-1 and two match points against Estonian veteran Kaia Kanepi, she battled back to prevail 2-6, 7-6, 6-4. Then the 24-year-old from Minsk gained momentum and confidence by outslugging 2022 Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 and 2016 U.S. Open finalist Karolina Pliskova 6-1, 7-6 (4).
Sheer power ruled, though, in their opening set as Sabalenka dictated most rallies with booming serves and groundies to produce three service breaks. The animated Belarusian, who has won two majors in doubles, wrapped up the 6-3 opening set with a reflex forehand volley winner. She celebrated the shot with a smile.
“Who would have thought six months ago we’d be praising Sabalenka’s second serve,” said ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. Sabalenka, prone to double faults, had worked with a biomechanical coach to improve her service toss. She committed only three DFs against Pliskova and two in the first set against Swiatek.
Astoundingly, World No. 1 Swiatek had lost eight of her last 11 service games over two matches.
With her growing confidence and resourcefulness, though, the world No. 1 quickly reversed the momentum, grabbing eight straight points for a 2-0 second-set lead. Swiatek wrapped up her third service break of the 6-1 set with great defence that eventually forced a Sabalenka backhand error.
The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd of more than 23,000 screaming fans got what they wanted in the deciding set when both competitors played their best tennis. With Swiatek down a break at 1-2, the large Polish contingent, wearing bright red attire and waving Polish flags and banners, chanted “Iga! Iga!” to try to ignite a comeback. It worked. An excellent serve return forced a forehand error for 2-all.
Down 2-4, Swiatek faced yet another crisis and produced yet another stunning reversal of momentum. This time the Pole displayed her entire repertoire to take 16 of the last 20 points, the most spectacular coming on a sharply angled backhand passing shot for a break in the pivotal eighth game.
On the super surge that brought a dramatic 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 comeback triumph, Fernandez said, “That’s what champions do. They find a way.”
Jabeur eliminated four seeded players, though none ranked in the top 15, to become the first Arab and African woman to reach a U.S. Open singles final. It was also her second straight Grand Slam final. “Two in a row feels amazing,” she said. “After Wimbledon, there was a lot of pressure on me, and I’m really relieved that I can back up my results.”
The 28-year-old Tunisian dispatched No. 31 seed Shelby Rogers, who upset No. 1 Ash Barty here a year ago, power-hitting, No. 18 Veronika Kudermetova, and Tomljanovic to reach the semifinals. There she faced Caroline Garcia, a 28-year-old Frenchwoman, who, as a teenager, Andy Murray predicted was a future No. 1. Although the gifted Garcia briefly peaked at No. 4 in 2018, she failed to fulfill her potential and plummeted to No. 74 at the end of 2021.
But now, no woman was hotter than the unpredictable Garcia. She won 13 straight matches and six straight against top-10 foes. That plus her full-court pressure style — she boldly attacks from inside the baseline — made Garcia the oddsmakers’ favourite. After Garcia’s dazzling 6-3, 6-4 victory over teen star and French Open runner-up Coco Gauff, ESPN analyst John McEnroe raved, “Now all of a sudden, it looks like she’s going to win the whole tournament.”
Not so fast. “She used to be a nervous player,” said former champion Chris Evert, now an ESPN analyst. “Those nerves turned into confidence.”
But which would it be against the trickster Jabeur: nerves or confidence? The answer came in the first eight minutes. As nervous and confused as a kid playing her first junior match, the slow and inept Garcia missed shot after shot and trailed 2-0. The canny Jabeur let Garcia beat herself, mostly placing her shots rather than pounding them. “I don’t see fight in her,” said Evert. “I don’t see her change her game.”
Jabeur streaked to a 6-1, 4-1 lead. Garcia’s father signalled for Garcia to come to net more. For the first time at a Grand Slam tournament, coaching is permitted, a controversial experiment that, one hopes, will not be repeated in 2023. The advice didn’t turn the match around, though Garcia did manage to hold serve twice before suffering a dismal 6-1, 6-3 loss.
Before the final that would feature contrasting styles, Jabeur said, “I know what I have to do to beat Iga.” Maybe so, as the Tunisian won two of their four career matches. But that formula sure didn’t work in their most recent encounter in May, when Swiatek trounced her 6-2, 6-2 in the Rome final. The circumspect, unassuming Pole said, “You have to have a lot of confidence to play on this stage because it can overwhelm you.”
That proved prescient because the confident Swiatek streaked to a 3-0 lead in just eight minutes, winning 12 of 14 points against the overwhelmed Jabeur. “Jabeur is flat,” observed Evert. “She lacks energy. She’s not moving well. She’s making a lot of errors.”
Jabeur broke serve with a forehand winner to narrow the score to 3-2. But Swiatek quickly countered with two more breaks to clinch the lopsided 6-2 set.
The underdog Jabeur faced a dilemma. From the baseline, Jabeur couldn’t match Swiatek, who has the best groundstrokes in the game. And if she moved forward, as her coach advised her after the first set, she risked over-hitting or getting passed. To make matters worse, her slice backhands and drop shots were erring.
Behind 1-0, 40-all in the second set, the Tunisian whacked a forehand approach winner. The crowd roared. It wanted a match, not a rout, and perhaps even a third set. Two points later, Jabeur lunged and missed a volley. Her sprawl on the hard court epitomised her futility. On the next point, the Pole sprinted for a drop volley and delivered a nifty backhand passing shot winner for a 2-0. The fired-up Swiatek fist-pumped to celebrate it. Gradually getting her teeth in the match, Jabeur broke serve with a forehand struck from five feet outside the alley, forcing a backhand error. That made the score 4-3 for Swiatek, but they were on serve and stayed that way until the tiebreaker.
Jabeur started beautifully with a backhand down-the-line winner. But then she repeatedly overhit and made four unforced forehand errors and a wild forehand serve return error. Aside from a forehand winner that kissed the sideline to make it 5-all, the tired, frustrated Jabeur beat herself. The more focused, fit, and consistent Swiatek took the tiebreaker 7-5 and the championship 6-2, 7-6.
“When I look at Swiatek, I see discipline. I see a machine,” said Evert, who exemplified those traits herself when she won 18 majors. “She’s the mentally toughest player on the circuit. She finds a way to win. That’s what champions do.”
Swiatek joined Serena, Justine Henin, and Rafael Nadal as the only players to capture the French and U.S. Open in the same season. She also became the first woman to win seven titles in a single season since Serena Williams in 2014.
Although Iga needs to polish her grass-court skills, chiefly her net game, to win Wimbledon, she clearly has ended the parity in women’s tennis. Now she reigns.
“Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown,” wrote Shakespeare. For the foreseeable future anyway, the new Queen of tennis will likely fend off most contenders for her throne.