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All hail tennis’s new king: Carlos Alcaraz

The 19-year-old wins the US Open as a new era in men’s tennis begins.
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Carlos Alcaraz warms up on day one of Wimbeldon, COURTESY OF NEIL TILBROOK via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Carlos Alcaraz warms up on day one of Wimbeldon, COURTESY OF NEIL TILBROOK via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The young Spanish tennis talent Carlos Alcaraz Garfia won the US Open tennis tournament final in New York on September 11, 2022, defeating his opponent Casper Ruud in four sets by 6–4, 2–6, 7–6 (1), 6–3. In doing so, he became the youngest champion to earn a debut Grand Slam title since the all-time great Rafael Nadal, as well as the youngest men’s world number one in history.

This was the second US Open final in the past two years to not feature one of the ‘Big Three’ players who dominated men’s tennis for more than two decades: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. This year’s tournament was projected to be Nadal’s return to form as he chased his third Grand Slam title of the year — and 23rd overall — but he fell in the fourth round. 

Nadal’s exit paved the way for a final match between two up-and-coming players who could each, in their own way, be considered Nadal’s successor. Alcaraz and Ruud competed for the title and spot of world’s number one.

Norway’s Ruud, the finalist at this year’s French Open tournament — where he fell to Nadal, who won all three sets — once again found himself facing the tenacious Spaniard on the opposite side of the net. Alcaraz went into the final as the comfortable favourite. He burst onto the scene earlier this year when he defeated both Nadal and Djokovic on road to winning the Madrid Open. In total, Alcaraz has won four Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour titles in 2022, including a win against Ruud in the Miami Open. Still, after clinching three back-to-back five-set marathon victories on his road to the US Open final, fatigue was expected to be a factor for the tenacious Spaniard.

Ruud, at 23 years old, came into the final more well-rested, and with nine ATP titles under his belt as well as a few more years of experience against his wunderkind opponent. He emulated the approach of his idol Nadal: playing a baseline attrition game, keeping Alcaraz at the back of the court with high and heavy topspins, and providing plenty of space for himself to return the Spaniard’s powerful serves. 

These tactics helped Ruud for some time. After losing a close first set, he ran away with the second. But after Alcaraz dominated the third-set tiebreaker, the young Spaniard’s momentum couldn’t be stopped. His cannon shot of a forehand, calm-under-firing serving, zipping movement across the court, and deft net play all helped him close the match. Despite his less electric playing style, Ruud hung in there, hitting some impressive overhead smash winners and drop-shot volleys — but his serving wasn’t consistent enough to carry him in this contest.

The political turbulence of 2022 impacted the year’s tennis rankings. Back in January, then world’s number one, Djokovic, was unable to defend his Australian Open title due to his unvaccinated status, which also barred him from participating in the US Open. Djokovic’s absence allowed Nadal to secure a remarkable victory in the final against the world’s best by default, Daniil Medvedev.

Later, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Wimbledon would ban Russian players, including Medvedev, from participating in their tournament. As a consequence of this controversial decision, the ATP chose to nullify ranking points at the prestigious midsummer Grand Slam. Djokovic won his seventh title at the All-England Club, but Medvedev remained at the top.

The end result is the current ATP hierarchy placing Nadal and Djokovic — arguably the best and most deserving recent players — far lower than their successes merited. Just a few days after Alcaraz’s victory, Roger Federer formally announced his plans to retire from tennis after the Laver Cup, scheduled for later this month in London, England.

With Federer’s departure, Nadal’s ongoing struggles with injuries, and Djokovic’s ability to participate in future tournaments being uncertain, the era of dominance for the ‘Big Three’ has ended. Alcaraz’s victory not only signals a promising start for a young champion’s career, but perhaps also a new era of greatness in men’s tennis.