Throughout this historic season, as he methodically climbed towards the top of his profession despite being a teenager in just his second full year on the ATP tour, Carlos Alcaraz was unfailingly clear about his objective: he was here to win grand slams. Not at some vague point in the future, or when he gained a little more experience, but now. He was ready.
He has backed up his intentions every step of the way and on Sunday evening he capped off his wild, thrilling ride to his maiden grand slam title by withstanding an intense challenge from Casper Ruud before powering on with his shotmaking and athleticism. He beat his Norwegian opponent 6-4, 2-6, 7-6, 6-3 to capture the US Open – and a grand slam title – for the first time in his young career.
Having spent much of the past few years breaking age records, he will now take the most impressive one of them of all, one that could stand for a long time. Alcaraz will rise to world No 1 on Monday for the first time in his career, making him the youngest player to achieve the feat in ATP history. At just 19 years and four months, the Spaniard is the first teenage No 1 the men’s game has ever had, more than a year younger than the previous record holder, Lleyton Hewitt.
The final marked the first time in the Open era that two players had faced each other with a maiden grand slam title and the No 1 ranking on the line. Alcaraz and 23 year-old Ruud, who reached the French Open final earlier this year, also contested the second-youngest grand slam final in the Open era in terms of player age, behind only the 1990 US Open between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
While he had played the best tennis at this tournament by a considerable distance, Alcaraz could not have faced a more difficult week leading up to the final. Before the start of his match with Ruud, he had spent 20 hours and 20 minutes on court, and had contested three consecutive five-setters. The Spaniard had been spectacular, but he consistently complicated his path. As the final began this year, the question was whether he would eventually reach his physical limit.
Alcaraz started the match playing free, attacking tennis, unfurling his full array of shots, constantly sweeping forward to the net. Despite falling a set behind, Ruud was resolute. The Norwegian absorbed and retrieved everything he could, remaining steady, making high percentage decisions when he attacked.
In the process, Ruud came up with some sublime improvisational tennis, showing off his own hand skills in the cat-and-mouse points initiated by Alcaraz. He broke serve after an awesome return game, chasing down an Alcaraz drop shot and scooping it over his opponent’s head on break point. After saving a break point in the following game, he thumped an overhead from the baseline for a decisive hold.
By the end of the second set, Alcaraz was struggling slightly, attempting too many failed drop shots and making questionable decisions. As Alcaraz’s tennis seesawed, Ruud began to serve well, injected more pace into his groundstrokes and imposed himself with his forehand. He made his move in a breathless game at 6-5, letting loose on his forehand from all parts of the court as he courageously generated two set points.
With his back to the wall and his legs no doubt feeling 22 hours of grueling tennis, Alcaraz responded. He swept to the net and saved the first set point with a sweet forehand drop volley. Later in the game, a return from Ruud whizzed by Alcaraz as he tried to serve and volley, which produced a second set point. Without hesitation, the teenager attempted a serve and volley once again, this time executing an well-measured volley to save the set. It was audacious, and as he held serve with an overhead after a thrilling point, the crowd responded with a standing ovation.
Ruud had thrown everything into breaking serve and he was immediately deflated. He played a dire tiebreak, his backhand letting him down badly. He had no further answers for the supreme, dynamic shotmaking of Alcaraz as he surged to victory.
Not since the initial rise of Rafael Nadal, around the year of Alcaraz’s birth in 2003, has an arrival to the very top of the sport felt so certain. It has been even more spectacular than anticipated, with Alcaraz showcasing many layers of his greatness over the course of the last two weeks, from his athleticism to his endless toolbox of shots to his nerve and the sheer joy he takes from the game.
In a sport that often reduces teenagers to helpless cramping in their first years of contesting five-set matches, he has also shown a peerless durability throughout his 23 hours and 40 minutes on court. Alcaraz has given the world a thorough exhibition of his talent and potential, and there appears to be no limit to what he can achieve next.