Every once in a while, someone new is allowed to win a men’s singles Grand Slam.
Daniil Medvedev won the U.S. Open last year. Dominic Thiem won it the year before. A few of the other next-gen players have got close. But even when they’ve won, none of them has given off big-dog vibes.
We’ve been conditioned by recent history to believe that a great men’s tennis player should be capable of winning a dozen of these things. Right from the outset, he should carry himself like someone who’s been here before and expects to stay.
Finally, men’s tennis has found that guy – Carlos Alcaraz.
On Sunday at Flushing Meadows, Alcaraz won his first Slam. When the next rankings come out, he will be the youngest men’s world No. 1 in history. He’s 19 years old.
If you hadn’t read anything about Alcaraz’s chances against Casper Ruud, you could not have known that Alcaraz was a 100-per-cent gold-plated lock to win this thing. This victory would confirm the Spaniard’s complete control of men’s tennis, which he has been in charge of for about a week.
If you had listened to something, it might have been the ESPN announcers conceding the match on Ruud’s behalf long before it was played, and then doing so repeatedly while it was going on.
“Alcaraz is a generational talent,” John McEnroe said portentously. “Ruud is a fantastic talent.”
The difference is apparently so enormous that it does not require explaining.
As is so often the case, that judgement was not borne out by lived experience.
Ruud started out nervously, but was in there punch-for-punch once he settled. The Norwegian had a chance to break for the third set. But having let that opportunity slip, he lost his grip on the whole thing.
Alcaraz has shown a special talent for winning preposterously long matches. But once he got going downhill on Sunday, there was no stopping him. The match finished 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3.
Once it was done, Alcaraz stuck to the winning script handed down from his predecessors. Fall to the court. Loll about there a bit. Get up. Be gracious to the loser. Climb up to your box. Hug every single person in there like you’ve just been freed by kidnappers. Seem stunned in the postmatch interview.
“It’s tough to talk right now,” Alcaraz said. “Lot of emotions.”
And then he charmingly began to well up.
Something tells me he’ll think up a more original way of being the winner. It looks as though he’s going to have a lot of practice in the years to come.
Going forward the big question is not whether Alcaraz is a huge star on the same level as the men he will eventually replace. It’s whether he can find a friend to be a huge star with him.
This Slam season was remarkable because it marked the moment people stopped waiting for the Big Three to go away, 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 shipped out – set the tone. Still in his prime, Djokovic now has the air of someone whose desk has been moved to a sub-basement. He hasn’t been fired. He’s just being involuntarily retired.
Rafael Nadal won in Australia and then at the French, but he seems diminished. Two old guys dominating a young man’s game is an inspirational story. One old guy doing it starts to feel a bit out of touch.
Even Nadal, as great as he still is, isn’t Nadal without an opposite number of similar quality, accomplishment and vintage.
This was always going to be tennis’s problem when it came to replacing Federer & Co. – the “& Co.” part.
No great players is bad, but one great player can be worse. Who wants to watch one guy steamroll the competition every time?
As there could have been no Federer without a Nadal, there was no Sampras without an Agassi. Every true great is flanked by his/her shadow.
This was the never-to-be-spoken-of disappointment of Serena Williams’s career. She didn’t have an opposite number. She liked her sister a lot, and she disliked Maria Sharapova with nearly the same intensity. But after a while, neither rivalry felt evenly matched.
Iga Swiatek, winner of Saturday’s women’s final, inherits the problem. If Williams has actually retired, the 21-year-old Pole is the new best-of in women’s tennis. Who’s Swiatek’s counterpart in the public imagination?
There are plenty of highly marketed players on the women’s side, but none of them have built up their CVs yet. It doesn’t help that Swiatek doesn’t exactly emanate personality. If she’s going to have a professional enemy, the other person is probably going to have to pick the fight.
Clearly, Alcaraz is the designated headliner of tennis. First up – a real mano e mano with Nadal in the late stages of a Grand Slam.
But eventually, he’s going to have to find the Borg to his McEnroe. Is it Ruud? You wouldn’t have said so a week ago. Ruud often looks like a player whose destiny is to make a ton of money by never winning anything. But on the evidence of Sunday’s match, it’s possible.
Maybe it’s Jannik Sinner, who pushed Alcaraz in the longest match in U.S. Open history this past week. Maybe it’s Francis Tiafoe, who did nearly the same thing.
But it has to be someone, and they must also separate themselves from the pack. The only person who’s shown that breakaway ability over the course of the past 10 years is Alcaraz.
He’s done the first (sneaky hard) part – win when he was expected to. Now he has to find a partner against whom to measure himself. Whoever that is, it certainly feels as though the two of them will define men’s tennis in the 2020s.