The coming-of-age party and fifth-set tiebreaker were over on Friday night. Carlos Alcaraz, an 18-year-old Spaniard, had finally finished throwing towels into the Arthur Ashe Stadium stands after his U.S. Open upset of Stefano Tsitsipas. One by one or in small groups, the fans walked up the stairs toward the exits.
They were smiling, sometimes shaking their heads and uttering words like “amazing” and “unbelievable.” This being 2021, two young boys ran toward their mother brandishing their phones to show off the courtside selfies they had taken with Alcaraz.
Has another tennis star been born? We will see. Big expectations can bring even ultra-talented teenagers down to earth. But the 55th-ranked Alcaraz looked like the real deal against the third-seeded Tsitsipas, ripping next-level groundstrokes, making the court look small with his foot speed and embracing the big stage and moment with the same gusto that Spain’s greatest player Rafael Nadal did in his teens.
It is quite a package, and it was quite a third-round match: four hours and seven minutes of momentum shifts, fast-twitch offense and defense and raw emotion.
It ended with Alcaraz flat on his back on the court that he had never set foot on until Friday morning when he walked into the nearly empty stadium for practice and looked up — and up — at the five tiers of stands.
“When I walked in, I took a photo with my team,” he said in an interview in Spanish. “It was spectacular. I could not believe this moment had finally come. In my opinion, it’s the best court in the world. So big.”
One wonders if Alcaraz’s court preferences will change if he becomes a regular on center court at the French Open or Wimbledon. Clay after all is Spain’s favorite tennis canvas and Alcaraz’s first surface. But his bold game seems right for bright lights and big, brash cities. He experienced Ashe Stadium to the fullest in his debut with the crowd roaring for him, in part because of the ill will that Tsitsipas has generated of late with his anti-vaccine stance and gamesmanship but also because of Alcaraz’s incandescence.
He sank his teeth into the match immediately, jumping out to a 4-0 lead, forcing Tsitsipas to adapt to the ferocious pace.
“Ball speed was incredible,” Tsitsipas said. “I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard. Took time to adjust. Took time to kind of develop my game around his game style.”
According to data from Hawkeye, Alcaraz’s average forehand speed was 78 miles per hour: 3 miles per hour faster than the U.S. Open men’s average this year. His backhand speed was 75 miles per hour: five miles per hour faster than the average.
No wonder Tsitsipas felt like there was no safe haven, but he appeared to have solved the problem when he won the second set and then took a 5-2 lead in the third, going up two breaks of serve. But he lost the edge and the set in a tiebreaker before roaring back to win the fourth set 6-0.
The logical thought at this stage was that the kid had had a great day, but that best-of-five sets against a top three player would remind him of how far he had to go.
So much for logic. Alcaraz resumed mixing huge groundstrokes and deft drop shots, hitting high notes with the crowd providing nothing but positive feedback. The final score was 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 0-6, 7-6 (5).
“I didn’t expect him to raise his level so much, especially after having lost the fourth set this way,” Tsitsipas said. “He was a completely different player.”
You cannot prepare yourself completely for such situations. You must experience them to find out what you are made of. Alcaraz, index finger wagging and fist pumping, looked very much in his element.
“The fact that the crowd was behind me and pulling for me to win is what I think helped me reach that level in the fifth set,” Alcaraz told me. “Without them, I wouldn’t have made it. It’s something I will never forget.”
It has been quite a first U.S. Open, quite a first visit to New York, but Alcaraz has imagined himself here for years.
“I could see from watching on television that the New York fans were passionate about tennis,” he said. “I wanted to experience that for myself.”
He is from Murcia in southeastern Spain, and from a tennis family. His father, also named Carlos, was a fine junior player and later became the sports director at a tennis club in Murcia.
“In my family, I think we have the sport in our blood,” Alcaraz said. “We all played from the time we were young.”
He started hitting at age 3 and was soon winning national junior titles in Spain while playing against his elders. He won his first ATP points at 14 — an exceptionally young age — at an event in Murcia. He played the professional tournament only because it was close to home, but his potential was clear in the small world of Spanish tennis.
Nadal, one of men’s tennis’s greatest prodigies, was born and raised on the Balearic island of Majorca in a sporting family and did not lack for local tennis role models. Carlos Moya, the French Open champion and the first Spanish man to reach No. 1 in the ATP rankings, was also from Majorca and mentored and practiced with Nadal when was in his early teens.
Alcaraz has had contact with Nadal. There is no shortage of photos on the internet of them posing together when Alcaraz was still a junior. They played in May in the second round of the Madrid Open on clay, and Nadal won 6-1, 6-2. But the comparisons are likely to continue if Alcaraz keeps grabbing big matches by the lapels.
“Thanks to Rafa, I learned the importance of playing with high energy and giving everything from the first ball to the last,” Alcaraz said. “The challenge of trying to go to where Rafa has gone is also a big motivation for me, even if I know it’s all but impossible.”
The Spanish star who has had the biggest influence on Alcaraz’s game is actually Juan Carlos Ferrero, another former world No. 1 who is now Alcaraz’s coach and operates an academy in Villena in Alicante.
“Since I met him when he was 14, 15, I knew of his potential, about his level,” Ferrero said on Saturday at the Open.
Ferrero, a French Open champion and U.S. Open finalist in 2003, was a great mover: a fluid baseliner who unlocked rallies and problems with structure and consistency. Alcaraz is a serial risk taker who likes to resolve the conflict in a single swipe of his racket but does share one of Ferrero’s qualities: fast feet. Alcaraz’s ability to run around his backhand and rip an airborne forehand is already world class.
“When you see somebody at 18 who can hit the ball that big already off both sides and moves that well, it’s close to unique,” said Paul Annacone, who coached former No. 1s Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. “To me, his backhand is actually better than his forehand. He misses his forehand. It’s huge, but he misses it. He doesn’t miss the backhand much at all. Sometimes I do wonder, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, whether someone who plays like that is really fearless or just doesn’t have any tennis I.Q. yet. That’s the unknown, but if you look at the kid’s tools, once he understands how to open up the court and use short angles and realize he doesn’t need to blast everything, it will be pretty scary.”
Getting the balance right will take time, and the next challenge will be avoiding a letdown on Sunday when Alcaraz will be the favorite instead of the underdog against 141st ranked qualifier Peter Gojowczyk of Germany in the fourth round.
“I know I have to take this round by round,” he said. “I can’t get ahead of myself, but I think I have a great opportunity here.”
What is clear for now is that Alcaraz’s take-no-prisoners style of play is not a reflection of his approach to life outside the arena.
“Outside the court, I’m a relaxed guy, pleasant, always laughing and making jokes,” he said. “I am totally the opposite of what I am on court.”