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With Carlos Alcaraz and co., the ATP's long-awaited “changing of the guard” achieved critical mass—for some, not a moment too soon
“We knew it (a transition) would eventually come sooner or later, and it looks like it was later,” said John McEnroe.
Published Sep 12, 2022
Tennis Channel Live: Alcaraz wins the US Open
NEW YORK—The 2022 US Open is almost sure to go down in tennis history as an inflection point, the moment when the long-awaited “changing of the guard” ending an extraordinary era in men’s tennis achieved critical mass. To some, enamored of the game’s aging, iconic Big Three but also weary of watching them win everything, it hasn’t come a moment too soon.
As ESPN analyst John McEnroe said during the broadcast of the men’s final, “We knew it (a transition) would eventually come sooner or later, and it looks like it was later.”
What we also learned is that the transformation of the status quo isn’t necessarily going to be the orderly progression some expected, with a handful of familiar, pre-approved newcomers slowly repopulating the top of the rankings.
If anything, this US Open suggested that all bets are off, that the most coveted seats at the Grand Slam table are up for grabs, and that a large number of hungry, deserving players—some unheralded until very recently—will be fighting over a limited number of slices of the tennis pie.
That is, if Carlos Alcaraz doesn’t gobble up the entire thing.
Alcaraz, a potentially generation-defining talent, snatched the title from Casper Ruud, another player who bolted into the elite class in the blink of an eye. Ruud still hasn’t won a title above the entry-level ATP 250 category (though he has nine such trophies), but his subtle, unspectacular talent is likely to present as much, or nearly as much, danger to his ATP peers as the explosive game of Alcaraz.
So why is there just one Alcaraz? Because the whole must somehow add up to more than a sum of the parts. In Alcaraz, it does.
Neither Alcaraz nor Ruud had ventured beyond the quarterfinals of the US Open before last week, but there they were, fighting not just over the trophy but the world No. 1 ranking (an accomplishment made easier by the denial of rankings points to Wimbledon competitors this year). The win by Alcaraz felt fitting—his resume going in had more shine going in, as did his game.
To some, Alcaraz is so efficient, so well-rounded, so much the master of every phase of the game that he appears to have been designed and manufactured by some supercomputer. That’s unfair, because it doesn’t take into account that there have been countless efforts over generations to produce a player with a comparable grasp of all facets of the game.
So why is there just one Alcaraz? Because the whole must somehow add up to more than a sum of the parts (talent, skill, physiology, dedication, training). In Alcaraz, it does. And did we mention his ambition?
“Well, right now I’m enjoying the moment. I’m enjoying to have the trophy in my hands,” Alcaraz said in his post-match press conference. Casting a possessive glance at the trophy perched near him on the dais, he added, smiling: “I want to be in the top for many, many weeks. I hope many years. I’m going to work hard again after this amazing two weeks. I’m going to fight to have more of this.”
The finalists were part of a quartet that comprised the youngest set of US Open semifinalists since 2008 (Alcaraz is 19; Ruud, 23; Frances Tiafoe, 24; Karen Khachanov, 26). In 2008, the kiddie corps consisted of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Names sound familiar?
Tiafoe and Khachanov have some catching up to do, but it would be an injustice to describe either of them as that familiar, uninvited “surprise semifinalist.” They earned their semi spurs with eye-catching results; Khachanov ended the run of Nick Kyrgios, while Tiafoe upset Nadal—and in the semis he pushed Alcaraz to the limit.
Tiafoe in particular was a revelation at this tournament, exciting the hopes of champion-starved Americans at their home Slam. Tiafoe described his own, recent transformation from a mercurial but inconsistent player into a legitimate threat accurately after his epic effort against Alcaraz.
“Through my career I’ve been pretty sporadic of playing well, veering off for a while. [But] I’ve always backed myself against the best players in the world,” he said. “I’m doing it [now] on a consistent basis, starting to beat guys more readily. I’m ready to take the next step.”
Tiafoe might have been speaking for his fellow semifinalists as well when he said, “I think rankings right now are honestly just a number. I really don’t care what anyone I’m playing [is ranked]. I feel like I can win any match.”
Granted, we have lived through false alarms and premature claims about the demise of the Big Three-plus-Murray before. The media has long been on the hunt for the Next Big Thing. The ATP unabashedly acknowledged that it was focused on identifying the heirs to Federer and company when it launched the aggressive, annual “Next Gen” marketing campaign, promoting players 21-and-under, in 2016. Who knew at the time that the Big Three were just getting into the down-in-dirty phase of their trivalry?
While many veterans of the Next Gen talent shows have prospered on the pro tour, the only Next Gen alum to win a Grand Slam title until this US Open was the 2021 champion, Daniil Medvedev (a loser to Kyrgios at this year’s Open). Give the ATP a pass because nobody could have anticipated the remarkable resilience, durability, and age-resistance of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
At times this past fortnight, you had to wonder what Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas were thinking. They were both hailed as the obvious heirs apparent, thanks to spectacular results they posted early in their careers, as well as the consistency they achieved in a few years on the tour. Both have contended, often fiercely, at majors. But neither has been able to close the deal at a major (No. 5 Zverev missed this US Open due to injury, while No. 6 Tsitsipas was eliminated in the first round by Colombian qualifier Daniel Galan). Were they mere placeholders for Alcaraz? Can either feel confident going into a match with Ruud, especially on slower surfaces?
At the same time, those two stars were being pressed with some success by another wave of players from whom one or more Grand Slam champions was expected to emerge. Proven 25-and-under talents include No. 9 Andrey Rublev, No. 10 Hubert Hurcacz, No. 11 Jannik Sinner (just 21), No. 12 Taylor Fritz and the heavily promoted Canadian duo of No. 13 Felix Auger-Aliassime and No. 24 Denis Shapovalov. All of them are waiting for their turns, like customers lined up to buy the newest iPhone on a line that is just getting longer and moving slower. But all of them are capable of taking down anyone.
It’s tempting to get ahead of ourselves. So let’s not forget that Nadal, 36, has been having a career year, marred only by the ominous confession buried in his analysis of his fourth-round loss to Tiafoe.
“I was not able to hold a high level of tennis for a long [extended] time,” Nadal said, citing Tiafoe’s quickness, his ability to take the ball early, and the difficulty Nadal encountered trying to push Tiafoe back off the baseline. “Tennis is a sport of position a lot of times. If not, you need to be very, very quick and very young. I am not in that moment anymore.”
That was painful, if accurate, for Nadal fans to hear. Federer and Murray are even worse off. The Swiss star Federer, 41, just wants to play Wimbledon one more time. Murray, 35, remains unable to get traction in his attempt to rebound from hip resurfacing. Given Nadal’s history of injury, Djokovic looms as the only stalwart of the golden age who is unravaged by age or injury. But at 35, the task of fending off the dizzying and still growing array of potential upset makers is only going to become more difficult.
Reminder: Alcaraz was the first player to defeat Nadal and Djokovic in back-to-back matches on clay. That was this spring in Madrid, where Alcaraz went on to lose just four games in a humiliation of a healthy No. 3-ranked Zvererv. It was clearly a sign of things to come.
“It’s sort of fitting for the US Open to end this way,” McEnroe said as the finalists were being introduced at the last Grand Slam of the year. “We keep watching, waiting to see who are the kids who are going to step up and take charge. Here they are.”