By Matthew Futterman
The future of tennis arrived at 7:38 p.m. Sunday with a rocketed serve off the racket of Carlos Alcaraz, who clinched the U.S. Open men’s singles championship, announcing the start of a new era in the game.
Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish sensation, beat Casper Ruud of Norway, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3, to win his first Grand Slam singles title, but probably not his last. Far, far from it. A blasted serve that came off his racket like a missile sealed it. The Carlos Alcaraz era is here.
On Sunday, he reached the sport’s pinnacle in grand fashion on its biggest stage, packing nearly 24,000 fans in the stadium onto his bandwagon as he claimed not only the men’s singles championship and $2.6 million in prize money, but also the No. 1 ranking in the world, becoming the youngest man to do so. He is the youngest man to win a Grand Slam title since Rafael Nadal won the 2005 French Open as a 19-year-old.
Alcaraz’s rise to the top of the sport had been predicted for years, but it has been breathtaking nonetheless. His forehand is powerful, and his ability to chase down balls that other players would not bother trying to reach is thrilling to watch. He can hit the lustiest of winners when he gets to them, and he takes pure joy from competing, even in the middle of the night. He has dazzled crowds everywhere he has played during his first two years as a full-fledged professional, never more so than during the past two weeks of this unforgettable championship run.
The ride began in 2021 in Australia, where he won his first main draw Grand Slam match on a court in the hinterlands of Melbourne Park with just a few dozen fans in attendance. He was outside the top 100 of the rankings then. In Croatia, last summer, he won his first tour-level title, and in New York starting a month later he blasted and drop-shotted his way into the quarterfinals as part of a teenage wave that took over the U.S. Open.
This spring brought his first titles at the Masters level, just below the Grand Slams, in Miami Gardens, Florida, and Madrid, where he beat Nadal and Novak Djokovic in consecutive matches. Veterans playing him — and often losing — for the first time, left the court shaking their heads, their eyes glazed, and at a loss for words about what they had experienced.
“This is something I have dreamed of since I was a kid,” Alcaraz, not so far removed from youth, said during the trophy presentation, after he and Ruud acknowledged the solemnity of the 21st anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in their moments of tennis heartbreak and triumph.
Alcaraz’s victory was the capstone of a tournament that will be recalled for years for many reasons. There was the farewell to Serena Williams, widely considered the greatest female player of the modern era; the rise of Frances Tiafoe, the 24-year-old American son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, who knocked out Nadal and pushed Alcaraz to the limits in an electric five-set semifinal; and Saturday, Iga Swiatek of Poland staked her claim as the new queen of the game, winning her third Grand Slam title in less than two years.
The championship came at the end of an epic week for Alcaraz. Just to get to the final, he played three straight five-set matches starting Monday that had him on the court for some 15 hours. His quarterfinal victory over Jannik Sinner, during which he was one point from elimination, lasted until 2:50 a.m. Thursday, the latest finish in the history of a tournament notorious for late endings. Two nights later, or rather, the next night, he outlasted Tiafoe in emotional, battle-filled, lung-busting rallies in a match with miraculous point-saving shots to the end.
“I’ve never played a player who moves as well,” said Tiafoe, who has played the best of the best. “He’s going to be a problem for a very long time.”
Alcaraz, though, said his first chance at a Grand Slam final was no time to be tired, and he started causing problems for Ruud early. Determined not to get into another marathon slugfest against an opponent as steady and as fit as anyone else in the field, Alcaraz stepped on the gas pedal from the start, rushing the net at every good chance and ending points with crisp volleys hit on the sharpest angles. Given what had transpired recently, Ruud had every right to expect Alcaraz’s unique style of tennis attrition. Instead he got shock-and-awe.
Alcaraz grabbed the early edge in the third game. With Ruud serving, he eschewed any inclinations to ease his way into the match. With a chance to cause early damage, Alcaraz flicked on his afterburners and started grunting with late-match urgency and volume on every shot.
After Alcaraz clinched that first service break, Ruud grabbed his towel near the corner of the court where his father and coach, former pro Christian Ruud, sat a few feet above the court. Team Ruud needed a Plan B.
It took another 10 games for Ruud to find it, but he did. Down a set, Ruud pressured Alcaraz by putting ball after ball at his feet, then put on an Alcaraz-like display of power and touch and covered the court to even the match after an hour and a half, as Alcaraz’s efficiency, and his lethal drop-shot, went missing temporarily.
This was a different Ruud than the one who took a drubbing from Nadal in his first Grand Slam final at the French Open three months ago, on a day when he looked like someone with really good seats for the match rather than an opponent. Ruud was not going away on his own Sunday.
But throughout the tournament, Alcaraz showed a rare ability to find the next gear to meet whatever challenge came his way. He put that on full display late in the third set, during a crucial, and for Ruud, soul-crushing stretch across a single game and a tiebreaker.
With Alcaraz serving to stay in the set, Ruud poured every bit of his power and determination into a series of rocketed forehands that earned him two chances to move a set ahead. Each time, Alcaraz pressed forward, fearlessly pushing into the court chin first. His chance for a lead gone, Ruud crumpled in the tiebreaker with a series of wild misses as Alcaraz reeled off seven consecutive points.
From there, holding back Alcaraz suddenly felt much like it has all year, a task akin to holding back an ocean. An absurd forehand, topspin lob while Alcaraz was running at full speed gave him the chance to get the crucial fourth-set service break. A point later, he did his best impression of a human backboard until Ruud could keep the ball in the court no longer.
“Hard to believe he’s only teenager, but, yeah, he is,” Ruud said later.
After the final point, a crushing service winner, Alcaraz collapsed on his back. A minute later he was embracing his longtime coach — former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero — who has piloted the journey, along with Alcaraz’s father, a former pro himself, and his grandfather, who helped develop the tennis club where he started to play as a 3-year-old.
When he made it back to his chair, Alcaraz put his face in a towel and sobbed, as Ruud sat stoically a few feet away. Ruud knew what had hit him, and knew that it could be the first of many days that end like this one.
A little while later, Ferrero said Alcaraz had reached about 60% of his potential.
“I want to be on top for many weeks, many years,” Alcaraz said later in a news conference. Then he pointed at the trophy. “I want more of these.”
The era is just starting.