Carlos Alcaraz arrived at this year’s US Open a teen prodigy and one of the possible title challengers. He left New York a Grand Slam champion and the youngest No.1 in the world, since rankings began in 1973.
While the 19-year-old Spaniard has been one of the most promising talents in recent times, he jumped the line of title contenders to triumph at this year’s US Open. His 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3 win over Norway’s Casper Ruud, who is now World No.2, brought to a close a typically chaotic US Open, which crowned two new singles champions—Iga Swiatek won the women’s title—said goodbye to a legend, and played host to some theatre of the absurd when Nick Kyrgios accused fans of smoking marijuana in the stands.
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The opening week of US Open 2022 was all about Serena Williams’ dance into the sunset, and the American came dressed for the occasion. Clad in a black, diamond-encrusted ensemble, the 40-year-old displayed some vintage feistiness in the three matches she played. The best of the lot was the 7-6, 2-6, 6-2 win over second seed Anett Kontaveit. Despite another fighting performance in the third round, she bowed out to Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic. “It takes a lot of work to get here,” Williams said after her run. “Clearly I’m still capable. It takes a lot more than that. I’m ready to, like, be a mom, explore a different version of Serena.”
Iga Swiatek in charge
Women’s tennis has thrown up a carousel of champions in recent years: including Elena Rybakina, a Russian-born player now representing Kazakhstan, who won this year’s Wimbledon. And while the spotlight remained squarely on Williams in the opening week, the women’s draw lost marquee players like Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, defending champion Emma Raducanu and Rybakina in the opening round.
As the women’s game contemplates a future without Williams, Iga Swiatek once again showed that she is ready to lead the pack. The power-hitting Pole already has two French Open titles to her name. But she is proving that she has the tools to succeed on other surfaces as well. After taking over the top spot from Ashleigh Barty in March this year, the 21-year-old began a chapter of dominance that is going from strength to strength. She put together a winning streak of 37 matches, and has won a total of seven tournaments this year, and has become the first player, since Angelique Kerber in 2016, to win two Grand Slams in a calendar year.
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Swiatek, whose winning streak of 37 was snapped at Wimbledon, didn’t enter the US Open with the brightest of prospects. The US Open introduced a lighter tennis ball for the women’s events, and the Pole publicly slammed the move as sexist, admitting that she was struggling to control her shots. But it has been a year of transformation for Swiatek. Unlike her French Open triumphs, where she was in supreme form, losing just one set in 14 matches, the US Open win was more about looking for solutions, problem-solving on the go. She was struggling to find perfection in her game, so she went with nous and grit.
“I finally accepted that I’m going to make those mistakes,” she said after beating Ons Jabeur 6-2, 7-6 in the final. “It’s not going to be like on slow surface where I can build a rally, then be really calm and just finish. It’s going to be more risk and less control. So, I accepted that. That was the thing that actually let me be more free.”
Carlos Alcaraz steps up
Even though a younger generation have been knocking on the door for some time now, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had locked down the first three Grand Slams of 2022. While Nadal won the first two for the first time in his career, Djokovic retained his Wimbledon title. But the US Open, which has been the most Open of slams in men’s tennis in the last 15 years, continues to defy order. In Alcaraz, it crowned a third first-time champion in a row after Dominic Thiem in 2020 and Daniil Medvedev in 2021.
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The 36-year-old Nadal had started the tournament as a firm title favourite. An abdominal injury had seen him withdraw from the Wimbledon semi-finals and the Spaniard, who leads the men’s Grand Slam tally at 22, lacked match-sharpness. While he had recovered from one set down in the first two rounds, he didn’t have enough firepower against an inspired Frances Tiafoe.
Son of immigrant parents from Sierra Leone, Tiafoe was living the American Dream this US Open. Not only did he knock out Nadal in four sets, the 24-year-old made it to the final four of a major for the very first time. His coach, former player Wayne Ferreira, admitted that he had to make Tiafoe give up on candy and cookies to whet his appetite for big-ticket showdowns.
When Tiafoe was asked about the Next Gen, and life after the ‘Big 3’ in men’s tennis, he stated that there would be more like ‘Big 12’ in the coming years. The tennis world caught a glimpse of this as US Open 2022 became the first Slam since the 2004 French Open with no Roger Federer, Nadal or Djokovic in the quarterfinals. None of this year’s final eight had ever won a major.
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Michelle Obama was one of the many Americans cheering on ‘Big Foe’ as he took on Alcaraz in the semi-final. The Spaniard had rallied from a match point down in the fourth set to beat 21-year-old Jannik Sinner 6-3, 6-7, 6-7 7-5, 6-3, in what was possibly the match of the tournament, in the previous round. But Alcaraz showed no signs of fatigue as he took down the home favourite in another five-set thriller.
At the other end of the draw, Ruud quietly progressed, like he usually does, into the summit clash. His low-key, cool appearance is a complete contrast to his intense game. Born in Norway, Ruud’s game has been smelted in the dust bowls of Spain. The 23-year-old defeated Karen Khachanov to enter his second Grand Slam final of the year, and like Alcaraz, had a chance to take over as No.1.
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Alcaraz versus Ruud thus became the youngest men’s Grand Slam final since the 2008 Australian Open. Both the players take big cuts from the baseline and can retrieve almost every ball. What set Alcaraz apart was his sense of adventure. Not only was he always looking to dictate the point, but also test and tease his opponent with his variety. The drop shot he conjured to end an intense rally and break Ruud in the opening game of the third set was just one of his staggering skill-set.
The Spaniard hit 55 winners and won 34 of 45 net points to finally defeat Ruud in a high-quality final. Alcaraz, described by his coach former No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero as ‘thin as spaghetti’ when they started working together four years ago, ended up with a record playing time of 23 hours and 39 minutes to earn his first major. “I want to be in the top for many, many weeks and I hope many years,” he said after his win. “I’m going to work hard again after this week, these amazing two weeks. I’m going to fight (to) have more of this.” The tournament that began heavy on nostalgia ended with a promise of a new dawn.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.
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