“I fight for every ball until it bounces twice or wins. These points sometimes pick me up. They make me smile and I’m enjoying the moment,” said the Spaniard. “Every now and then you have to do a bit of magic.”
The No. 3-seeded Alcaraz does just that on a regular basis as he enters a unique US Open final on Sunday No. 5 seeds Casper Ruud, a 23-year-old from Norway. The stakes are so high for both of them: this is the first Grand Slam final between two players who have their eyes on both a first major championship and No. 1 in the ATP rankings.
“Of course there will be nerves,” said Ruud, “and we will both feel it.”
Ruud got a taste of that kind of phase in June when he made it to the French Open final before losing there to Rafael Nadal, a 14-time champion.
“He obviously hit me hard,” said Ruud, who is coached by his father, former professional player Christian Ruud. “After the final I said: ‘If I ever reach one again, I hope it’s not Rafa on the other side of the pitch at Roland Garros because I think it’s an impossible task for any player.’ I’m glad it’s not Rafa on clay.”
Nevertheless, it is not easy at the moment to take on Alcaraz.
This will mark Alcaraz’ debut on the final day of a slam. He is the youngest man in a final at Flushing Meadows since Pete Sampras won the US Open in 1990 at 19, and the youngest in a major title shot since Nadal won the French Open at that age in 2005.
These two guys were okay: Sampras retired with 14 Grand Slam trophies; Nadal has a men’s record of 22.
Alcaraz would be the youngest – there’s that word again – ATP No. 1 since computerized rankings began in 1973. He has shown signs of being an elite player as a teenager, climbing the rankings, winning titles and victories over Nadal and 21-time Major champion Novak Djokovic in consecutive matches (on clay no less) to his credit.
“He’s definitely one of the best players in the world. he is so young He hits the ball so hard. To be honest, I’ve never played a guy who moves as well as he does. I’ve seen him get a lot of balls, but I’ve hit some drop volleys…(and) he gets there. How is he able to extend points? Unbelievable,” Frances Tiafoe said afterwards lost to Alcaraz in the semifinals Friday night.
“He’s a damn good player,” Tiafoe said. “He’s going to be a problem for a very long time.”
This match lasted 4 hours and 19 minutes and was Alcaraz’s third in a row to go the distance (the others were against 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic in the fourth round, which ended at 2:23 p.m , and Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals, end at 2:50 p.m.). Only two other players in the Open era, which began in 1968, have ever won a trio of games going the distance back-to-back en route to a Grand Slam final.
It takes the right mix of endurance and skill. Alcaraz, coached by 2003 French Open winner and 2003 US Open runner-up Juan Carlos Ferrero, noted he is 8-1 in five-setters in his burgeoning career and said he is capable of summoning the “best version of myself” when the tension is high.
“It’s true that I matured very quickly, but that’s what tennis does: it matures you very quickly,” said Alcaraz. “Maybe playing tournaments has made me more experienced and ‘older’, with a lot of responsibility. But at home, with my family or friends – all the people I have known since I was a child – I feel like a 19-year-old.”
AP sportswriter Eric Núñez contributed to this report.
More AP coverage of US Open Tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/us-open-tennis-championships and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports