This story, no one had written it. At least not so fast. If his exponential trajectory left few doubts about his ability to reign in the near future, few were those who had imagined him, a fortnight ago, with the cape of new master of the tennis planet on his back at the end. of the New York meeting.
Sunday September 11, Carlos Alcaraz proved that the adjective “premature” was foreign to him by beating, in the final of the US Open, the Norwegian Casper Ruud (6-4, 2-6, 7-6 [7-1], 6-3). The first Grand Slam title of a career that is predicted to be as insatiable as his carnivorous smile. At 19 years and four months, the Spaniard becomes, as a bonus, the youngest world number 1 in history, dislodging the Australian Lleyton Hewitt, crowned at 20 years and eight months (in 2001).
The scenario was unprecedented: never had a Grand Slam final pitted two players against each other in a position to open their Grand Slam record and sit on the world throne in the process. For the Spaniard as for the 23-year-old Norwegian, the weight of history weighed heavily on their shoulders as they entered the Arthur-Ashe court, topped with its roof.
After winning the first set, the protege of Juan Carlos Ferrero suddenly became less precise, his explosiveness remained in the locker room. On the other side of the net, Casper Ruud put his plan into action: hold his rival as far as possible, playing with depth and rigor.
In the third set, the youngest was often on a wire, revealing his frustration where his opponent was only phlegm. The Norwegian’s game will probably never get the crowds up, even if on Sunday it was often he who had the last word on the most flamboyant points.
Carlos Alcaraz regained his ardor in the tie-break of the third set, and was not going to let go. “It was not the time to be tired, when you come to the end of a tournament, you have to leave everything you have left on the court”, reacts the winner, again 141e at the start of 2021, in front of 23,000 long-won spectators.
Not long ago, some promised an era threatened by boredom, when the three heroes of the beginning of the 21st centurye century would bow out. In the shadow of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, tennis would be nothing more than an insipid and banal spectacle. The disillusioned lesson givers buried a sport which was supposedly no longer in tune with the standards of modernity, the fault above all of the endless matches.
This edition of the US Open has proven that you can still fill stadiums to the brim, even at the end of the night, even after a myriad of matches in five sets, without the spectators bordering on an overdose. Just as the first roles played by a talented new generation, led by an uninhibited youngest, augured an intoxicating tomorrow.
Tennis can thank Carlos Alcaraz. The Spaniard had already delivered, on the night of Wednesday to Thursday, the most beautiful match of the fortnight, alongside the Italian Jannik Sinner (13e world), barely older than him (21 years old). A quarter-final won by the Spaniard at the latest time ever recorded at the US Open (2:50 a.m.), after the second longest match in the history of the tournament. For 5:15 a.m., the two impudent hit the ball with maximum intensity. The duel impressed and carries the seeds of a rivalry that could develop over time.
A teenager’s face, the nerves of an old veteran
Against Marin Cilic already, in the eighth, Alcaraz had scrapped five sets. The youngster from El Palmar (province of Murcia) still has the face of a teenager, but the nerves of an old veteran and fire in his arms. After his three fights in a row completed in 1:28 p.m., he was “a little tired, of course, but just very happy”. “I think back to the child I was ten years ago, who dreamed of the moment I am living. You have to pursue your dreams. Hard work is always rewarded.” added the Spaniard after his victory in the semi-final against the revelation of the tournament, the American Frances Tiafoe, 24, who defeated Rafael Nadal in the eighth.
The kid learns quickly, very quickly. A year ago, another 55e world at the dawn of playing his first US Open, the teenager with skinny arms had to throw in the towel in the quarter-finals after a series of marathon matches. “Last year, I had only played three Grand Slams before the US Open, and only one match in five sets, he justified on the eve of the final. Today, I am more ready, physically and mentally. Since this US Open, there have been twelve months of intense work, indoors and on the court. But I would say that the key is mostly mental. »
Former world number 1 Justine Henin said she was amazed by this vertiginous ascent. “In the tournaments that preceded Roland-Garros, he took us to another planet, with his exceptional sequence [demi-finale à Indian Wells, titres à Miami, Barcelone et Madrid], we didn’t know where he was going to stop,” told the Belgian World this week. The Spaniard was finally beaten in the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros, when everyone imagined him leaving with the Musketeers Cup under his arm. “It’s normal, he still had things to learn. But I wasn’t worried about what was to come.” continued Henin.
Early 2020, “Carlitos” was still playing on the secondary circuit. He was 16, posters of Nadal hanging on the walls of his room, and pointing to 490e ATP rank. Unlike the Majorcan, who crushed the competition from an early age, Alcaraz took longer to mature his talent. The frail teenager had a more complete technical palette than his eldest at the same age, but with so many options in his racquet, he didn’t always know how to choose the right one at the right time.
Since then, he has become this chameleon of the game capable of adapting his tennis to any type of opponent, and has shaken up the passing times, often marrying those of his idol. Since the beginning of the season, he has accumulated 50 victories and five titles. In New York, for two weeks, his tennis with panache electrified an audience often more absorbed by his hot dog or that of his neighbour: an explosive forward-facing game, a big strike from the baseline, climbs to the net and cushioning as a lethal weapon.
Not so long ago, the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, the German Alexander Zverev or the Russian Andrey Rublev were announced as the heirs of the holy trinity Federer-Nadal-Djokovic. All have so far failed to win the Grail. Carlos Alcaraz has just grilled their politeness. Or rather, to use the words of Zverev, swept away by the Spaniard in Madrid in May, from their “kick ass”.