Every now and then someone new is allowed to win a Grand Slam in men’s singles.
Daniil Medvedev won the US Open last year. Dominic Thiem had won it the previous year. A few of the other next-gen players have come closer. But even when they won, none of them gave off big dog vibes.
We have been conditioned by recent history to believe that a great male tennis player should be able to win a dozen of these things. From the start, he must behave like someone who has been here before and intends to stay.
Finally, men’s tennis has found this guy – Carlos Alcaraz.
Carlos Alcaraz wins the US Open for his first Grand Slam title and becomes the youngest man to be ranked No. 1
Sunday at Flushing Meadows, Alcaraz won his first Slam. In the next ranking, he will be the youngest male world No. 1 in history. He is 19 years old.
If you hadn’t read about Alcaraz’s odds against Casper Ruud, you couldn’t have known that Alcaraz was a 100% gold-plated lock to win this thing. This victory would confirm the Spaniard’s total mastery of men’s tennis, which he has been in charge of for about a week.
If you had been listening to anything, it might have been the ESPN announcers conceding the game on Ruud’s behalf long before it was played, then repeatedly doing so as it unfolded.
“Alcaraz is a generational talent,” said John McEnroe presumptively. “Ruud is a fantastic talent.”
The difference is apparently so huge that it needs no explanation.
As is often the case, this judgment has not been confirmed by lived experience.
Ruud started out nervously, but he was in there shot for shot once he settled in. The Norwegian had a chance to break for the third set. But having let this opportunity pass, he lost all grip on it all.
Alcaraz showed a particular knack for winning ridiculously long matches. But once it started to descend on Sunday, there was no stopping it. The match ended 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(1), 6-3.
Once done, Alcaraz stuck to the winning script passed down from its predecessors. Fall at court. Take a stroll there. Rise. Be gracious to the loser. Go up to your box. Kiss every person here like you’ve just been freed by kidnappers. Seems stunned in post-match interview.
“It’s hard to talk right now,” Alcaraz said. “A lot of emotions.”
And then he started to gush with charm.
Something tells me he’s going to come up with a more original way to be the winner. It looks like he’s going to get a lot of practice in the years to come.
Going forward, the big question isn’t whether Alcaraz is a huge star on par with the men he eventually replaces. That’s if he can find a friend to be a big star with him.
This season of Slam was notable because it marked the moment when people stopped waiting for the Big Three to leave and started pretending they were already gone.
Novak Djokovic’s miserable experience at the Australian Open – allowed into the country at first, then detained and expelled – set the tone. Still in his prime, Djokovic now looks like someone whose office has been moved to a basement. He was not fired. He’s just involuntarily retired.
Rafael Nadal won in Australia and then with the French, but he seems diminished. Two old guys dominating a young man’s game is an inspiring story. An old man who does this begins to feel a bit disconnected.
Even Nadal, great as he still is, is not Nadal without an opposite number of similar quality, accomplishment and vintage.
This was always going to be tennis’ problem when it came to replacing Federer & Co. – the “& Co.” part.
No great player is bad, but a great player can be worse. Who wants to watch a guy roll the competition every time?
As there would have been no Federer without Nadal, there was no Sampras without Agassi. Each truly great is flanked by his shadow.
It was the disappointment that will never be spoken of in Serena Williams’ career. She had no opposite number. She loved her sister very much, and she didn’t love Maria Sharapova with almost the same intensity. But after a while, neither rivalry felt equal.
Iga Swiatek, winner of Saturday’s women’s final, inherits the problem. If Williams has indeed retired, the 21-year-old Polish is the new best-of in women’s tennis. Who is Swiatek’s counterpart in the public imagination?
There are plenty of heavily marketed players on the women’s side, but none of them have built their CVs yet. It doesn’t help that Swiatek doesn’t exactly emanate personality. If she is going to have a professional enemy, the other person will probably have to choose the fight.
Obviously, Alcaraz is the designated headliner of tennis. First – a real mano e mano with Nadal in the final stages of a Grand Slam.
But eventually, he will have to find the Borg at his McEnroe. Is it Ruud? You wouldn’t have said that a week ago. Ruud often looks like a gambler whose destiny is to win a ton of money and never win anything. But on the evidence of Sunday’s game, it is possible.
It may have been Jannik Sinner, who pushed Alcaraz into the longest match in US Open history last week. It may be Francis Tiafoe, who did almost the same thing.
But it has to be someone, and they also have to separate themselves from the pack. The only person who has shown this breakaway ability in the last 10 years is Alcaraz.
He did the first (sneaky) part – winning when expected. Now he must find a partner to compete with. Whoever it is, it certainly feels like the two will define men’s tennis in the 2020s.