Men's tennis has been dominated for two decades by the "Big Three" of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. In the U.S. Open final on Sunday, 19-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz identified himself the "Next One" to succeed them as the winner of many major titles.
Alcaraz won his first Grand Slam singles title and earned the No. 1 world ranking with a skillful and determined 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3 victory over Casper Ruud of Norway in front of a crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium that serenaded him with cries of "Olé" and "Vamos, Carlitos." Alcaraz finished the match with an ace, then threw himself on his back to soak it all in.
After meeting Ruud at the net and embracing the runner-up, Alcaraz ran up to his supporters' box to hug them and share his moment of triumph.
Alcaraz had been ranked No. 4 in the world, and Ruud No. 7. They will be 1-2 in the rankings Monday.
Nadal, who leads men's players with 22 Grand Slam singles titles, lost in the round of 16 here. Federer is still recovering from knee surgery, and Djokovic wasn't allowed to enter the United States because he has declined to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Alcaraz earns $2.6 million, and Ruud receives $1.3 million. Ruud had reached the final of a Grand Slam once before, losing in Paris at the French Open this summer. This was Alcaraz's first Slam singles final, but it surely won't be his last.
According to the Association of Tennis Professionals men's tour, Alcaraz is the first teenager to rank No. 1 since 1973. He's also the 28th world No. 1 in ATP rankings history (since August 1973) and the 57th of the Open era, which began in 1968.
Alcaraz got off to a good start in the first set by breaking Ruud's serve for a 2-1 lead. Alcaraz then dodged a break point for Ruud to consolidate the break and go up 3-1. He won the set on his first opportunity, when Ruud sent a return into the net.
The second set stayed on serve, with Ruud saving a break point in the fifth game to take a 3-2 lead. Ruud, using his excellent topspin forehand, then broke Alcaraz's serve for a 4-2 lead. Ruud clinched the set on his second chance.
Both men elevated their play in the third set, earning standing ovations several times for their efforts and execution of difficult shots that they made look easy. Alcaraz went up a break in the first game, but Ruud broke back for 2-2 when Alcaraz netted a backhand. They stayed even, at 5-5, until Ruud won the next game at love for a 6-5 lead. The crowd heavily favored Alcaraz but also applauded Ruud's perseverance and line-brushing shots.
With Alcaraz serving, Ruud carved out two set points but couldn't take advantage of them. Alcaraz won a game that went to deuce five times, sending them to the tiebreak. Ruud made several unexpected errors, allowing Alcaraz to take the tiebreak and the set.
Alcaraz's fitness was remarkable, especially considering he had played three straight five-set matches to reach the final, going the distance against Marin Cilic in the round of 16, Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals and Frances Tiafoe in the semifinals.
Alcaraz not only stayed fresh physically, he remained sharp mentally and was smart in his shot selection. He broke for a 4-2 lead in the fourth set and won four straight points in the next game to put his first championship ever closer. He needed a second championship point to end the match but did it emphatically, with an ace.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.