The future of men’s tennis is in good hands. And while in just whose hands that will be is yet to be determined, it will be a whole lot of fun watching it play out following this transformative fortnight in Queens.
A new generation is not only banging on the door but insisting on busting through it. For the moment, the face of the future is that of Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old who defeated Casper Ruud, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3, to capture the U.S. Open championship and the world’s No. 1 ranking on Sunday, capping an electrifying two weeks of work on Ashe.
But you know who is going to be lurking as soon as January in Australia? Novak Djokovic, that’s who, after his eligibility for the first 2023 Slam was confirmed on Sunday by Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley. The 21-time Slam champion, of course, was barred from both the 2022 Australian and the Open because of his decision not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
So Alcaraz, the youngest U.S. Open champion since Pete Sampras in 1990 and the eighth teenager to claim a major in the Open era, will know in a hurry what is to be the hunted.
Alcaraz never quite reached the heights of his five-set victory in Friday’s breathtaking semifinal over Frances Tiafoe but was not required to do so in order to prevail. He was not quite as dynamic as he’d been in that one, but the King of Gets had too much speed, too many weapons and way too much net game — 34 of 45 points won at the net, 15 of 21 on serve and volley — for the 26-year-old fifth seed from Norway.
But then, the slight dip in Alcaraz’s game that very well might have been a function of having been on the court for 13 hours and 28 minutes over his three, five-set victories on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It might have been a function of having played 225 games (including five tiebreakers) through his first six matches.
Djokovic was not here. Roger Federer, who at 41 has not played competitive tennis since Wimbledon last year while rehabbing from his third right knee surgery in 18 months, was not here either, though the Swiss is scheduled to play in the Laver Cup two weeks from now in London. Nadal was here but exited following his Round of 16 defeat by Tiafoe.
Despite that, this was a captivating tournament. The emergence of Alcaraz and Tiafoe energized the grounds. The 26-year-old Ruud established himself as a force with whom to be reckoned in making a second Slam final, following his defeat to Nadal at Roland Garros.
The new Nick Kyrgios took out defending champ and now deposed No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the Round of 16 but fell flat on his face in a quarterfinal defeat to Karen Khachanov, after which he reverted to form with a racket-slamming tantrum. Still, Kyrgios comes out of this Grand Slam season regarded as much a potential contender as a novelty act.
There’s a line forming behind Alcaraz in a men’s universe that has been dominated for two decades by three men. And before we get too far ahead of ourselves, Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win six of the last nine and eight of the last 12 Slams. Neither is likely to go quietly into the night.
Tiafoe’s ascension was uplifting to the USTA folks and a legion of fans, especially in the aftermath of the country’s top seed, Taylor Fritz, flaming out in the first round. If Tiafoe is not prominent among the group that will be chasing Alcaraz around the world, that would represent a disappointment.
There is no one who has been more closely identified with U.S. men’s tennis over the last 45 years than John McEnroe, who of course was in his ESPN analyst’s seat for this one. We all think we know McEnroe, who has been a constant in the tennis world and in our lives since the Jimmy Carter administration.
But we don’t. Not really.
There is a cannot-miss documentary simply titled, “McEnroe,” streaming on Showtime Anytime in which the 63-year-old(!) bares his soul to the bone and leaves those of us who grew up in his era saddened, disturbed and ultimately feeling a great deal of empathy for him and his family. It is McEnroe explaining McEnroe.
Years of self-examination, plus the support and love from his wife, Patty Smyth, appear to have created a measure of serenity in his life. “McEnroe,” written and directed by Barney Douglas, is a remarkable look at the journey of one of the sport’s enduring legends and evolving individuals.
McEnroe, of course, was a teenaged terror when he went to the Wimbledon semis in 1977 as an 18-year-old. Alcaraz emerges from the Open as a teen angel.
Now, they will all be coming after him. Including Djokovic, in Melbourne.