It was nearly 2 a.m. at the U.S. Open (of course it was), and Carlos Alcaraz was cheerfully giving a news conference after his latest five-set thriller.
“Sometimes you have to come up with a little magic, you know?” he said.
We do know, and though we might not have been 100 percent certain before Alcaraz returned to New York for his second U.S. Open, the evidence is overwhelming now after his bewitching run to the men’s singles final, in which he will face Casper Ruud on Sunday.
Alcaraz, just 19, has made the spectacular rally and the acrobatic shot seem routine under extraordinary pressure. He has done it with the crowd of nearly 24,000 in Arthur Ashe Stadium supporting him, saving a match point against Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals. He has worked the same kind of magic with a majority of the crowd against him, as it was on Friday night when he played Frances Tiafoe.
But even Tiafoe, an American in the midst of a breakthrough of his own, was left either wide-eyed or covering his mouth in disbelief at some of the winners that Alcaraz conjured on the run. Alcaraz is at his most dangerous and entertaining when he is on the scramble.
Against Sinner in the quarterfinals, he hit a behind-the-back shot in midair and went on to win the point. Against Tiafoe in the semifinals, Alcaraz came up with lunging angles, forehand passing shots off balls that seemed already out of reach, and produced topspin lobs from deeply compromised positions that landed beyond Tiafoe’s reach directly on the baseline.
“Obviously I would have loved to win tonight, but I think tennis won tonight,” Tiafoe said after drying his eyes and putting the transcendent tournament and often marvelous match in perspective.
But the tennis is not quite finished, and Alcaraz has not yet taken the final step in his journey from Spanish prodigy to Grand Slam champion.
One more match awaits, and the final against Ruud, a 23-year-old Norwegian, will not only be a duel for the U.S. Open title. It will also be a match for the No. 1 ranking.
Whoever wins will rise to the top spot for the first time: an unprecedented scenario in a major final since the ATP computer rankings were created in 1973.
An Alcaraz loss to Tiafoe would have guaranteed Ruud the No. 1 ranking, even without taking the title, but Ruud said he preferred it this way, calling it “the ideal situation” and “what’s most fair.”
It certainly adds an extra layer of import to the occasion.
“I always dreamed of being No. 1,” Alcaraz said. “Obviously to be No. 1 without winning a Slam is complicated to do, but since I was little, it was always No. 1.”
Now, he has a chance to achieve both on Sunday. It might seem premature that Alcaraz or Ruud reach the summit considering Rafael Nadal won the first two majors of the year and Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon. But Nadal and Djokovic have missed big chunks of this season (and Nadal missed the last few months of 2021 as well).
Djokovic got no ranking points for his Wimbledon victory after points were stripped from the tournament because of its ban on Russian and Belarusian players. Djokovic was also unable to play in the Australian Open, the U.S. Open or four Masters 1000 events in North America because he remained unvaccinated for Covid-19. In the meantime, Alexander Zverev, a German contender for the top spot, has not played on tour since tearing ankle ligaments in the semifinals of the French Open in June.
But that is hardly the fourth-ranked Alcaraz’s or seventh-ranked Ruud’s doing. They have been durable and consistently successful (they are also both vaccinated).
Ruud is the first Norwegian man to reach a U.S. Open singles final. Alcaraz is the youngest man to reach a Grand Slam singles final since Nadal at the French Open in 2005, and he is also the youngest man to reach a U.S. Open singles final since Pete Sampras in 1990. Nadal and Sampras both won the titles at age 19.
Alcaraz deserves to be the favorite on Sunday even if Ruud has the edge in experience. Ruud has already played one major final, losing the French Open final in June in straight sets as Nadal claimed his 14th singles title at Roland Garros (which still makes me shake my head).
“He obviously gave me a good beating,” Ruud said. “After the final, I said if I ever reach one again, I hope it’s not Rafa on the other side of the court in Roland Garros, because it’s sort of an impossible task, I think, for any player. I’m happy that it’s not Rafa on clay.”
But Alcaraz is no walk in Central Park. Like many Spaniards, he learned the game on clay, but the hardcourt looks like his best surface. Alcaraz likes to take big cuts and hit the ball very early, and the true bounce of a hardcourt allows him more precision. It also suits his movement, allowing him to push off and change direction in a flash.
“I never played a guy who moves as well as him,” said the 24-year-old Tiafoe, who is also one of the quickest players on tour.
Alcaraz’s ability to extend rallies puts tremendous pressure on the opposition to try to play closer to the lines, which lured Tiafoe into errors on Friday, as it had lured many before him.
“If I want to beat Carlos, I’ll need to play very precise with all the shots that I hit and especially try to keep him a little bit further back in the court, to play with good depth and length on all my shots,” Ruud said. “If he steps in, he can do anything with the ball. He can rip a winner. He also has great touch with the drop shot. I think he has one of the best drop shots on tour.”
Consistent depth might limit the drop shots, but mere depth does not keep Alcaraz from ripping groundstroke winners. He will punish a shot that lacks punch or slice crisp enough to skid low.
But Ruud is a smooth and increasingly complete player with a devastating forehand of his own and an improving serve. Unlike Alcaraz, he has played just one five-setter in this U.S. Open.
Alcaraz has played three five-setters in a row, all of which finished late or ridiculously late. He beat Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, at 2:23 a.m. on Tuesday; he beat Sinner at 2:50 a.m. on Thursday in what was the latest finish ever at the U.S. Open; and he then beat Tiafoe shortly before midnight on Friday.
Alcaraz, in only his second full season on tour, is now 8-1 in five-set matches and 5-0 at Flushing Meadows.
Though he showed no signs of slowing down on Friday night, he has played significantly more tennis in New York this year than Ruud.
He has also played more highlight-reel tennis than anybody else, even the departed Australian Nick Kyrgios, and with a positive energy and sportsmanlike attitude that make him a much less conflicted viewing experience than Kyrgios.
Alcaraz and Ruud, who has also trained in Spain, are on friendly terms, and it would be quite a shock if their final were anything but family fare.
“It makes me happy to transmit good values to the young,” Alcaraz said.
A Spanish reporter pointed out that Alcaraz was still rather young himself.
“In tennis, you can mature quickly,” he said. “At tournaments, perhaps I feel a bit older, with more responsibilities, let’s say. But once I’m at home with my family, my friends and the people I have known since I was little, I feel like a 19-year-old kid.”
However he feels in New York, if he wins on Sunday, Alcaraz will be the youngest No. 1 in ATP history.