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Carlos Alcaraz seeks first major, faces Casper Ruud in US Open final

As Frances Tiafoe met with Michelle Obama in a side room beneath Arthur Ashe Stadium after midnight Saturday morning, Carlos Alcaraz lingered on the court, with the remaining fans singing “Ole, Ole, Ole.’’

Earlier, Tiafoe had the majority of the crowd on his side during their monumental 4:19 U.S. Open men’s semifinal, which featured the former First Lady watching from the crowd.

Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish star, didn’t get to meet Obama, but he beat his American foe, Tiafoe, in a thrilling five-set match to reach his first Grand Slam final. He will take on Norwegian baseline machine Casper Ruud on Sunday afternoon in the men’s final.

With his speed and acrobatic game, Alcaraz is a showstopper who first announced himself at the 2021 Open, when he rumbled into the quarterfinals. He has been a marathon man at the Open this year, having won three straight five-setters — each one a crowd-pleaser.

Alcaraz is still a teenager, but despite surviving three straight long victories, he’s human and doesn’t possess alien powers. During the 2021 Open, he actually retired in the second set against Felix Auger-Aliassime with a leg injury.

Carlos Alcaraz
Carlos Alcaraz

“I feel great right now,’’ Alcaraz said after the semifinal win. “I mean, a little bit tired. But, yeah, I feel good, I feel great. Right now I’m just so, so happy. I thought about a young man like 10 years ago dreaming for this moment.’’

How Alcaraz responds physically to 15 sets of grinding tennis over four days will determine whether he wins his first major and vaults to No. 1 in the world.

Ruud, who made the French Open final, which he lost to Rafael Nadal, also would vault to No. 1 with a win Sunday. It’s only the 10th time the Open has featured two first-timers in the men’s final.

Tiafoe gave the supreme scouting report for Alcaraz. The 6-foot-1 Spaniard is being touted as a future superstar capable of mounting double-digit Grand Slam titles with his defense, court coverage, mental toughness and flair.

“It’s going to be very tough to play him,’’ Tiafoe said after the five-set classic semifinal. “He’s one of the best players in the world. He’s so young. He hits the ball so hard. I never played a guy who moves as well as him, honestly.

“I’ve seen him get a lot of balls, but I was hitting some drop volleys. He’s getting there. How he’s able to extend points [is] incredible. He’s a hell of a player. He’s going to be a problem for a very long time. For him to be so young, being so poised in big moments, I take my hat off.’’

Alcaraz, seeded third, should have the crowd on his side Sunday with his entertaining game and hype as “The Next Nadal.’’

In contrast, No. 5 Ruud is a stoic baseliner from a skiing mecca, but he wields a big topspin forehand and a promising future.

Ruud is just 23 and is the first Norwegian to advance past the fourth round of the Open. Alcaraz has beaten Ruud in their two meetings — in Miami and Spain — without losing a set.

Casper Ruud
Casper Ruud
Larry Marano

“I would say that 70 percent, it was for Frances,’’ Alcaraz said of the Flushing throng Friday night. “But I just hear the 30 percent remaining. It was crazy.’’

Ruud said he is just happy not to have to face Nadal in this final. But he may have a younger facsimile.

“Carlos and Frances are both very electric players, play with a lot of joy and can bring up unbelievable rallies and points,’’ Ruud said hours before the Tiafoe-Alcaraz match ended. “So I have to be prepared for everything.’’

Everything, indeed. Alcaraz made one get against Tiafoe the likes of which hasn’t been seen in years.

Alcaraz was near the net after retrieving a drop shot and out of position. Tiafoe whaled the ball down the right sideline — a seemingly clear winner. But Alcaraz’s anticipation and speed allowed him to race to the shot near the baseline. He lunged his backhand out and returned the ball on the fly. The degree of difficulty was off the charts.

The men’s final is going to be quite a show.

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