Top10Matches_2021-3-wide

Over November 29-December 3 and December 6-10, we'll run down our Top 10 Matches of the 2021 season.

No. 10 | No. 9 | No. 8 | No. 7 | No. 6 | No. 5 | No. 4

There was a lot of talk about the past at the start of this year’s US Open. About how, with the absence of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, and Venus Williams, an era was ending. About how we won’t see stars of their magnitude again anytime soon. But if you’ve followed tennis long enough, you know that the sport always renews itself, and always creates a new cast of characters for us to care about.

Sometimes it takes a while. Other times it happens in a hurry.

A month before the Open began, the 34-year-old Nadal announced that he was ending his season. By the end of the Open’s first week, Carlos Alcaraz, an 18-year-old from the same country as Rafa, had announced his arrival on the world stage by putting on the performance of the men’s event in upsetting No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in five sets and four hours.

It didn’t take a tennis expert to see the similarities between Nadal and Alcaraz: The mix of calm belief and relentless positivity; the tremendous racquet speed on the forehand; the leaping, celebratory fist-pumps; the flat-on-his-back fall to the court after his final forehand winner found the corner on match point.

Yet when Alcaraz was asked after the match who he modeled his game after, he said,

“Honestly, I didn’t copy any style of a player. I just play my game. But if I have to say one player that is similar my game, I think it’s Federer. I think similar as my game, trying to be aggressive all the time.”

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If Federer was watching, he must have been impressed with what he had inspired. Alcaraz came out of the gate on fire, flicking easy winners from both wings, mixing in his forehand drop shot at the right moments, and keeping his racquet head perfectly steady at net, like a born volleyer. There was a predatory, boxer-like grace to the way Alcaraz coolly backpedaled for his inside-out forehands, and quickly pounced on short balls. Over four hours, he wasted little motion.

“In the beginning of the first set, he came really strong,” Tsitsipas said of Alcaraz. “Ball speed was incredible. I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard. Took time to adjust.”

Tsitsipas did adjust, because he’s a Top 5 player. And if Alcaraz had simply faded away after that first set, it still would have been an eye-popping debut in Ashe. But he didn’t fade away. Instead, he showed his most Rafa-like trait: The ability to stop negative momentum in its tracks, to not let a bad set turn into two bad sets, to dig himself out of a hole with emotion and energy. Alcaraz trailed by 2-5 and two breaks in the third set, and ended up winning it in a tiebreaker. He lost the fourth set 6-0, but found the energy again to bring Tsitsipas’s run of brilliant play to a halt in the fifth.

“I felt physically in my limit at the end of the third set,” Alcaraz said. “Stefanos started the fourth set really, really good. He break my serve at the second game…He played a really good game in the first four sets. In the beginning of the fifth set, I had to play really aggressive, the best tennis I’ve played.”

And then there was the fifth-set tiebreaker, the only way for a match like this to end. Tsitsipas served lights out, which normally is the key to winning any tiebreaker. But Alcaraz was even better; virtually every ball he touched went for a winner or near-winner, and he may have swung more calmly at this stage than he had at any other time during the match.

The last two points made for a perfect summation of Alcaraz’s day. Up 6-4, with a chance to win the match on his serve, he played the most delicate point possible, bringing Tsitsipas in and lofting a lob over him, which missed by half an inch. Rather than think about how close he had been, Alcaraz immediately walked back to towel off and get ready for the next point.

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There was a predatory, boxer-like grace to the way Alcaraz coolly backpedaled for his inside-out forehands, and quickly pounced on short balls. Over four hours, he wasted little motion.

At 6-5, the two rallied, Alcaraz handcuffed Tsitsipas with a strong down the line forehand, and Tsitsipas floated a high slice lob that landed near the baseline. This was not an easy shot: Alcaraz had just lost two match points, and he had to generate all the pace on the ball. But he did it nervelessly, with a loose and easy swing, and he put it in the corner for his 61st winner of the day.

“I think when I missed the last two points with my serve, I didn’t give up. I believed in me in the last point,” Alcaraz said. “He was serving really, really well. As I said, I didn’t give up. Yeah, I think it was a great last point. I thought I had to be aggressive until the last point. I think I did it.”

Alcaraz had the full support of the Ashe crowd.

“It surprise me, really,” he said. “The crowd was behind me all the time, supporting me, pushing me up in every moment. It surprise me, yeah, really.”

That support probably began as an expression of their distaste for Tsitsipas, whose bathroom breaks had made him the villain of the first week. But Alcaraz, with his laser winners and graceful aggression, had earned their appreciation by the end of the third game.

Sometimes it takes a while for tennis to find a new star. Sometimes it happens in a hurry.