AAmerican Frances TiafoeThe 24-year-old could very easily play in the men’s US Open final tomorrow. With a raucous New York crowd on Friday night – which included Michelle Obama and Jon Bon Jovi – on his side, he produced an inspired performance in Friday’s semi-final, fighting back when all seemed lost to force a fifth set. He played well enough to beat most opponents.
But Carlos Alcaraz, 19, is far from most players. He can just stand alone.
A bit of hyperbole for a teenager who just made his first Grand Slam final? Usually, of course.
Alcaraz definitely doesn’t feel typical.
Just count the ways. Exit a quarter final match that took 5 hours and 15 minutes and ended at 2:50 a.m. Thursday, Alcaraz called on every tool in his stunning tennis arsenal Friday night during another marathon thriller: this one lasting 4 hours and 18 minutes. In his 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3 win over Tiafoe, Alcaraz chased down balls he wasn’t allowed to reach, a talent that apparently got to the head of Tiafoe: Tiafoe made some horrendous unforced errors as he tried to send shots far – too far – from the Spanish teenager. Alcaraz, who will face No. 5 Kasper Ruud of Norway in Sunday’s final, powered through when he needed it. He landed surprising drop shots when Tiafoe least expected. Alcaraz also painted the edges of the court, like a painter. At one point, Tiafoe laughed and shook her head as the robotic bouncers revealed once again that an Alcaraz winner had indeed cut the line.
Had one of the most exciting moments of the tournament, if not the year. Alcaraz needed one more point to break the first set. He chased down not one, not two, but three Tiafoe fine shots: Tiafoe actually sent the last one past Alcaraz, but Alcaraz refused to surrender. He slipped back towards the baseline before firing an impossible pass shot past Tiafoe. The crowd roared, as it were Serena Williams just took match point.
Of course, American tennis fans are biased. The “let’s go Francis” chants betray this. But they deserve respect: the New York crowd always appreciates the surreal.
“I’ve never played a guy who moves as well as him, to be honest,” Tiafoe says. “How he manages to increase the points, incredible. He’s a damn good player. He will be a problem for a very long time.”
There was also a fascinating moment early in the second set when Alcaraz and Tiafoe battled to a 17-stroke total. Alcarez made a great play on defense, pouncing on a Tiafoe laser up the lane; Alcarez somehow grabbed his racket, sending the ball back over the net to continue the point. After Alcaraz eventually forced an error from Tiafoe’s backhand, the American jumped over the net and waved at him as if to say “are you kidding me?” They laughed.
If this is the future of tennis, expect such joyous moments for years to come.
He had that lob in the fifth set that took him to match point. Alcaraz missed a Tiafoe attempt, slid his shoes like he was on clay – Ash is the hardest surface – and ripped a winner right down the baseline. One last message: Alcaraz was too good tonight.
Made in Spain
Alcaraz was born in the game. A native of El Palmar, a district of the city of Murcia, where a giant mural now hangs in his honor – his father Carlos ran a tennis academy. His grandfather was the first member of the tennis club. He got his first racket when he was three. His coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, is a former world number 1 from Spain: he won the French Open the same year, 2003, that Alcaraz was born.
Alcaraz won four tournaments this year in Rio, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid. Like the US Open, Miami is a hard-court event and one of the most prestigious outside of the majors: Alcaraz beat Ruud in the final there in early April. In Madrid, he bounced back his idol Rafael Nadal, then world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany in consecutive matches.
The winner of the Alcarez-Ruud final will be the new world No. 1. If Alcarez prevails, he will become the youngest top-ranked player in history. He has played nearly 10 hours of tennis in his last two matches. Fatigue may occur. But Alcaraz is also 19 years old and incredibly healthy.
“No matter what I fight for or what I am, I [am] just go and enjoy[ing] the moment,” he says.
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