Over the course of an intense, chaotic and wildly entertaining US Open semi-final between Carlos Alcaraz and Frances Tiafoe, as their combined creativity, athleticism and joy merged to create entertainment in its purest form, Alcaraz absorbed so many blows. He conceded a difficult first set tiebreak with a double fault, then after establishing his dominance, he couldn’t hold on. Alcaraz continually lost his serve, failed to take a match point and found himself in a fifth set.
There were so many moments when the momentum could have dangerously shifted, but no matter how the match twisted, he maintained his intensity until the end. Across the three consecutive five-set battles that have led him to the final, this resilience has been his defining characteristic. It will make him so hard to put away as he faces Casper Ruud for the men’s US Open title on Sunday.
Together, they have engineered a fascinating scenario that marks a stark contrast to the years of dominance by the big three. Not only will Ruud and Alcaraz compete for their first grand slam title in the final, but the world No 1 ranking is also on the line. It is rare enough for players to reach the world summit for the first time after winning a slam. The most recent occurrence in the men’s game coming when Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon in 2011, his third major.
The obstacles for Ruud are clearly numerous. Despite reaching his second grand slam final of the season, Ruud has never beaten a top-10 opponent at a grand slam tournament – what a time it would be to finally do so. They faced each other in a big final earlier this year at the Miami Open, a first Masters 1000 final for both, and although Alcaraz still had not yet broken the top 15, he won in two tight sets.
He should really have too much game – too many weapons to hurt Ruud off the ground, too many defensive and improvisational skills for Ruud to continually breach his defences. But there is so much more than just tennis in play in a first grand slam final. Both players will have to handle the greatest occasion of their career, and all the nerves that could easily strike them as they seek it out. That is perhaps where Ruud may be able to use his greater experience.
Although Alcaraz’s level has been peerless in New York and his tournament highlight reel will be remarkable, he has been extremely inefficient. In each of his three five-set matches against Marin Cilic, Jannik Sinner and Tiafoe, he has had clear and numerous opportunities to finish with far less toil, and it is partly his wastefulness that has forced him to be so resilient. He has been on court for 20 hours and 20 minutesa total he could have trimmed by at least three hours.
Despite a far from easy run himself, Ruud has spent nearly two fewer hours on court with a total of 18 hours, 27 minutes. While Alcaraz has demonstrated an incredible recovery and physical fortitude, Ruud will enter the court believing that if he is able to use his greater experience to handle the occasion well and to be clinical in the big moments, he will have his chances.
Throughout the past couple of years, Alcaraz has spent his time breaking age records at every stage of development. Barring catastrophic injuries, it was as inevitable as any player since the emergence of Rafael Nadal that he would be competing for grand slams. Here he is at 19 years old, fighting to become the youngest world No 1 in the history of the ATP tour and the second-youngest US Open champion, after Pete Sampras. “Well, it’s close. But at the same time it is so far away, you know?” said Alcaraz.
If it isn’t him, then the final will produce a completely different winner altogether in Ruud, a 23-year-old who has always stood at the periphery as more highly-rated young players received commendations. The Norwegian has steadily improved and taken his chances, though, and has the chance to fight for one of the biggest titles.