A potentially legendary career in men’s tennis reached a significant milestone Sunday when Carlos Alcaraz of Spain won his first Grand Slam title at the US Open, defeating Norway’s Casper Ruud 6-4, 2-6, 7-6, 6-3.
Alcaraz, who turned 19 in May, has been the subject of outsized expectations and breathless predictions of greatness since early in his teenage years. But it would have been difficult for even his most ardent believers to envision how quickly he has ascended to the top of the game.
After being ranked 141st at the beginning of the 2021 season, winning the US Open makes Alcaraz the first teenage male to ever reach No. 1 in the world. He is also the youngest man to win a maiden Grand Slam title since Rafael Nadal did it just shy of his 19th birthday at the 2005 French Open.
“It’s crazy for me,” Alcaraz said. “I never thought I was going to achieve something like that at 19 years old, so everything came so fast and for me it’s unbelievable. It’s something I dreamed of since I was a kid, since I start playing tennis. To lift this trophy today is amazing for me.”
And he did it the hard way, battling through three consecutive five-set matches before a tough final against an opponent who brought a lot of quality to the table and forced Alcaraz to come up with his best tennis despite playing on clearly tired legs.
Alcaraz’s total of 23 hours, 39 minutes on court is the most combined amount of on-court time any player has ever endured during a major, passing Kevin Anderson’s 23 hours, 20 minutes during a run to the 2018 Wimbledon final.
That work load might have eventually caught up to a lesser player. But Alcaraz, in addition to his superior physical abilities, showed remarkable mental acuity and tactical brilliance during the final to manage his body and sixteen the biggest moments.
“He’s one of those few rare talents that comes up every now and then in sports,” Ruud said. “That’s what it seems like. Let’s see how his career develops, but it’s going all in the right direction.”
After Alcaraz’s energy dipped about an hour into the match, helping a fresher-looking Ruud secure a 6-2 second set win to even the match, Alcaraz appeared to take control again when he got an early break of serve in the third set and had an opportunity to go up double-break. Instead, with Ruud playing solid tennis himself and declining to give away any points with sloppy errors, Alcaraz found himself back on serve at 5-6 and facing two break points to keep the set alive.
He saved both of them by attacking the net and putting away volleys, showcasing the all-court game that has separated him from scores of young players who have struggled to break through at the Grand Slams.
“I think he born to play this kind of tournament, born to play these kind of matches,” said Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 2003 French Open champion who now coaches Alcaraz. “Since the moment that I started with him, I saw some things that were different than the other guys at his age. I am still seeing it on the court. In important moments, he always tries to go. He’s a great competitor.”
After that key hold of serve, Alcaraz dominated the tiebreaker to put him one set away from victory. In the fourth set, both players held serve until 2-3 when Alcaraz’s stunning speed and court coverage to go along with massive forehands finally generated a break of serve to put him closer to the finish line.
Serving for the match, Alcaraz missed an easy overhead that would have given him a 40-0 lead. But he responded immediately with an ace up the middle for some breathing room, then finished the title at 40-30 with a heavy wide serve that Ruud could not get his racquet on.
Though much of the tennis world has known for awhile about the massive talent Alcaraz possessed, he had not had breakthrough results until last year’s US Open when he upset Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round and made it to the quarterfinals.
That effort foreshadowed how quickly and easily Alcaraz would adapt to the highest levels of the sport. This spring, he reeled off four tournament titles in four months including significant prizes at the Miami Open and Madrid Open where he defeated Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal consecutively.
With a new set of expectations, Alcaraz somewhat disappointed at the French Open where he lost a quarterfinal to Alexander Zverev. He lost in the round of 16 at Wimbledon to 21-year old Jannik Sinner, whom Alcaraz turned the tables on in New York in an epic, 5-hour and 15 minute quarterfinal.
For the 23-year old Ruud, who will move to No. 2 in the rankings, it was his second Grand Slam final loss of the year. He had made the French Open final this spring only to run into Nadal, who beat him there in straight sets.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Carlos Alcaraz wins his first Grand Slam title with US Open victory