For new US Open champ Carlos Alcaraz, the chase for Grand Slam titles is just beginning | Opinion




It should not have been possible to combine the offensive shotmaking and creativity of Roger Federer, the relentlessness and mental strength of Rafael Nadal and the supernatural speed and endurance of Novak Djokovic into one body.

But when they made Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year old Spanish tennis phenom who now rules the sport as its new No. 1, the rules obviously didn't apply. And by the time he's done, he may well have made us rethink everything about what greatness looks like.

Even as Alcaraz shot up the rankings this year, won big tournament titles and even started to beat some of those legends, it was fair to wonder if the hyperbole was too much. The standard in tennis is winning Grand Slams, and the last two decades of Big Three dominance have sometimes cruelly exposed that talent isn't enough to get to the finish line at even one of these tournaments, much less do it 20 times. It is impossible to know if someone can do it until it has been done.

But on Sunday, as Alcaraz put his hands on the U.S. Open trophy for the very first time after defeating Norway's Casper Ruud, there was no sense of relief or surprise. Instead, it looked like a scene that we will assuredly see play out many more times over the next 15 years.

Carlos Alcaraz celebrates with the championship trophy after his match against Casper Ruud.
Carlos Alcaraz celebrates with the championship trophy after his match against Casper Ruud.  

US OPEN: Alcaraz picks up first Grand Slam title with victory against Ruud

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As generations of players came and went, unable to break through the physical and mental wall that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic had erected around the Grand Slams, it was natural to be cynical about the future of men's tennis at the end of their reign.

And yet just as their dominance has begun to wane, here comes something entirely new: A generational talent who combines the best attributes of all three while playing the game with charisma, flair and unshakable confidence that he can pull off any shot at any time.

In his matches at the U.S. Open, which stretched across a grueling 23 hours and 39 minutes, Alcaraz showed what new-age tennis will look like and the level his contemporaries and younger challengers will have to reach to win these events. It won't be easy for any of them.

Obviously, Alcaraz has a very, very long way to go for his achievements to match what the Big Three have done. And there are so many variables that will determine whether it's possible, including health and the ability to sustain the hunger that makes him the first teenager to reach No. 1 in ATP history.

But in many ways, Alcaraz has already broken through the hardest part of the process because what he just did in New York wasn't supposed to be possible at all anymore.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the timetable for tennis players was much different. It wasn't unusual to see teenagers win Grand Slams, but players were rarely competitive into their 30s.

Over the last two decades, the entire career window has shifted as the game became more and more demanding, especially in the best-of-five set format utilized by the Grand Slams. Tennis became a sport for grown men at their physical peak, not still-developing youngsters who lacked the strength and competitive stamina to survive seven grueling matches. With sports science advances allowing more and more veteran players to extend their careers, it has become exceedingly lately for teenagers to make a significant impact on tour.

Alcaraz, though, put himself on a much different timetable than the rest. He won his first ITF-level event at 16, his first Challenger Tour event at 17 and his first ATP title at 18. He started 2022 ranked No. 32 in the world, setting a goal to crack the top 10 by the end of the year.

But by the time he won the Miami Open in March and the Madrid Open in May, two of the biggest non-Slam events on the calendar, it was obvious something else was happening.

The kid had figured this game out.

It's not just that Alcaraz hits the ball harder off the ground than just about anyone. It's not just that he runs faster, with the ability to contort his body on defense and uncork winners at ridiculous angles. It's not just his willingness to come forward and finish points at the net or utilize his creativity and touch with terrorizing drop shots.

In the end, it's all of that plus something else that simply can't be taught: When the moment gets bigger, he plays better.

"In the third set, it was close to go in my favor," Ruud said, referring to a moment in the final when Alcaraz needed to save set two set points to get to a third set tiebreaker, which he ultimately won. "He just played too good on those points. We've seen it many times before, he steps up when he needs to. When it's close, he pulls out great shots."

That was the story of Alcaraz's tournament because there was no other way for him to get through a fourth round against Marin Cilic when he fell down a break in the fifth set, or to come back from the brink against Jannik Sinner during a 5-hour, 15 minute marathon or to survive an onslaught of brilliant shotmaking from Frances Tiafoe in the semifinals.

But it also wasn't too surprising. We have known for awhile Alcaraz had no real technical weakness in his game. When he beat Nadal and Djokovic in consecutive matches in Madrid, showing absolutely zero tentativeness or deference to their intimidating presence, there was little doubt he would have that special quality needed to finish a Grand Slam title.

It wasn't a matter of if, but when. Now, it's how many.

Time will tell, but the transition from the Big Three to the Era of Alcaraz looks like it's going to be a smooth one. The U.S. Open was just the beginning, and now it's time to watch to him really take off.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open champ Carlos Alcaraz is only beginning his Grand Slam run

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