MATCH POINT: Carlos Alcaraz edges Matteo Berrettini in a third-set tiebreaker to reach the Vienna semifinals

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Judging by recent appearances, 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-2 aren’t what they used to be in tennis. The ATP’s breakout player at the US Open, Carlos Alcaraz, is 6’1”, and the tour’s newest Masters 1000 champion, Cam Norrie, is 6’2”. Once upon a time, these were ideal heights for male players—tall enough to serve big, not too tall to play defense. But with the rise, literally, of the Next Gen—no one under 6’4” need apply—all of that has changed. These days, Alcaraz and Norrie look like little guys.

Not that this has deterred either of them in recent weeks. On Thursday, Alcaraz went up against another of the tour’s young super-talls, 6'5" Matteo Berrettini, and matched him serve for serve, return for return, and ground stroke for ground stroke over three entertaining and competitive sets, before escaping with a 6-1, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5) win. Alcaraz’s victory made for a fitting follow-up to his win over another towering Top Tenner, Stefanos Tsitsipas, also in a deciding tiebreaker, at the Open.

With blurring speed and crisp technique like Alcaraz’s, size ceases to matter as much as it typically does in tennis. You could see his technique in all parts of the court on Thursday: In his perfectly reflexed forehand returns, which he sent skidding past a surprised Berrettini at the baseline; in the finely measured drop shot that he made die a few inches in front of the net, and well out of Berrettini’s reach; in the forehands that he rocketed so fast that they didn’t need to land anywhere near the lines to go for winners. Alcaraz has a knack for catching his opponents off-guard with a sudden, last-second injection of pace. It turns out that, with the right timing, you can still be 6’1” and control a match from the baseline.

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GettyImages-1236205983

Alcaraz is 18, and there are moments when he plays like it. Sometimes he tries to inject too much pace into a forehand and ends up drilling it completely flat and into the net. Sometimes he gets too ambitious and goes for the down-the-line backhand winner when it isn’t there. And just as he did against Tsitsipas in New York, Alcaraz leaped out of the gates against Berrettini, only to give the lead back in the second set. He has plenty of confidence in his skills, and his ability to play with anyone. But he’s still learning to have faith that he can hold a lead and finish off highly-ranked opponents. Getting his second Top 10 win today will help.

Can Alcaraz get a third on Saturday? In 6’6” Alexander Zverev, he’ll be facing another Next Gen giant, and he’ll likely need to take his game up another step. Zverev has been on a long-running roll since Wimbledon, and he took care of Alcaraz comfortably, 6-3, 6-1, when they met in Acapulco early this year.

From Alcaraz’s perspective, it will be interesting to see how much ground the fast-improving Spaniard has made up since then. From the perspective of the men’s game and its future, it will be interesting to see whether an 18-year-old is ready, or nearly ready, to challenge a 24-year-old. Not because it matters today, but because it may begin to matter in 2022. Until now, Zverev and his mid-20s cohorts have been the guys on the rise, the guys looking to upend the Big Three and win their first majors. Now, with Alcaraz, there’s a Next Next Gen player who is gaining on them, who has beaten two of them already, and who will be looking to win his own first Slam soon. We’ll get a sneak preview of how both Zverev and Alcaraz will react to that new dynamic on Saturday. I’m thinking Zverev will keep the pecking order intact—for now.