At the US Open, Carlos Alcaraz proves he is at home on the big stage and worthy of becoming world No. 1

Well into the fifth hour and the fourth set of his US Open quarterfinal against Jannik Sinner, in what was already a high-quality, high-octane encounter, Carlos Alcaraz proved exactly why he has been touted as men’s tennis’ next superstar.

The 19-year-old was much the better player in the early stages of the match, winning the first set. But Sinner, two years his senior, weathered the storm brilliantly to go into the lead. He targeted Alcaraz’s weaknesses in the second set more, and despite the Spaniard hitting 16 winners and just 5 unforced errors in the third, Sinner raised his level enough at the back end of the set to break back and force a tiebreaker, which he won 7-0. Alcaraz had set points in both the second and third set, but Sinner led 2-1.

At the start of the fourth, Sinner picked up a break, and while Alcaraz broke back later, he was unable to consolidate. The Italian stepped onto court to serve for the match, and even had match point, before Alcaraz did what most players at the top level of tennis do – made him sweat hard for the win.

It sounds simple but it’s far from it. Getting the ball back into play as many times as possible is a huge feat in an era of the game that has been defined by baseline defence. Alcaraz refused to go down, used his footspeed to chase down ball after ball, made Sinner win each point twice or thrice, and make split-second decisions in the process. The results were there, Sinner buckled under the pressure with a double fault, before getting broken by missing a routine drive-by forehand volley.

Alcaraz won three games in a row and took the match into a decider. He was down a break again in the fifth, but there was a sense of calm and self-belief in his manner that indicated he was not going to lose, going on to win five games in a row to round out a 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-7 (0), 7-5, 6-3 win in what was one of the US Open’s all-time great contests.

The latter stages of men’s Majors have been dominated by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic for the better part of this century, but the fabled ‘Big 3’ are on the decline. Federer has not played a full season in three years, Djokovic is unvaccinated and unwelcome on much of the tour, and Nadal – short on match practice, sharpness, fitness, and seemingly on motivation – fell away early.

Alcaraz and Sinner, however, showed the world they are the game’s present as much as they are the game’s future. The intensity from the very first point, the consistent quality of the shotmaking, the twists and turns creating tension and high drama, all made for the best tennis match of the year, by some distance. There were exquisitely-timed drop shots, high athleticism to meet those at the net, passing shots that will create quite the highlight-reel, and so much more.

Spare a thought for Sinner

Ultimately, the plaudits and headlines will be taken by Alcaraz, but Sinner deserves massive credit. The Italian may be more mild-mannered on court and less flashy with his playing style, but the sheer number of weapons in his arsenal were on full display. His serve was incredibly consistent, he came up with massive aces when it mattered most. His backhand is known to be a big strength, but it was his forehand wing that was doing maximum damage – going for winners inside-out and cross-court, as well as slices and dropshots, to keep Alcaraz on his toes.

The Italian has been considered to be one of the top talents on the men’s tour, and after his exciting breakthrough a few years ago, injury issues have caused problems. He has become a consistent force – one of a handful of active players to have reached the quarterfinal of each Grand Slam – and despite failing to close this match out, it could be the springboard that takes his career to the next level.

Alvarez’s swag

Alcaraz, on the other hand, is already one of the best players in the world. The first half of the year saw him ascend the rankings rapidly and win two Masters 1000s, and the pressure has only risen ever since. The expectations are high, and as Wednesday’s fight showed, he is living up to the billing. The Spaniard swaggered on the court in recognition of his own shotmaking, kept the crowd on its toes and performing to his tune as he followed up incredible moments of athleticism with gestures to rile them up, and more than anything else, showed impressive resilience throughout.

Up next is America’s Frances Tiafoe who has been on a charge himself this week, beating Nadal in the fourth round. The crowd will be with the local favourite, who is much the fresher player after wrapping up his quarterfinal quickly on Wednesday. Alcaraz stayed on court to sign autographs and interact with fans well past 3 am, and with all post-match routines, would not have gone to bed until the early hours of the morning (perhaps pointing to a separate debate regarding modern tennis’ warped scheduling).

But despite spending more than 10 hours on court in his last two matches, Alcaraz looks fresh and raring to go. He will be the World No. 1 if he wins the title on Sunday – for which he has now become the overwhelming favourite – but even if he does not, there is little doubt that the 19-year-old has arrived, and is able to produce his best on the game’s biggest stage.

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