American Frances Tiafoe, 24, could very easily be playing in tomorrow’s U.S. Open men’s final. With a rollicking Friday night New York City crowd—which included Michelle Obama and Jon Bon Jovi—squarely on his side, he turned in an inspiring performance in Friday’s semi, fighting back when all seemed lost to force a fifth set. He played well enough to beat most opponents.
But Carlos Alcaraz, 19, is far from most players. He may just stand alone.
A bit of hyperbole for a teenager who just made his first Grand Slam final? Typically, sure.
Alcaraz sure doesn’t feel typical.
Just count the ways. Coming off a quarterfinal match that took 5 hours, 15 minutes and ended at 2: 50 AM Thursday morning, Alcaraz summoned every tool in his stunning tennis arsenal on Friday night during another marathon thriller: this one went 4 hours, 18 minutes. In his 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-3 victory over Tiafoe, Alcaraz chased down balls he had no right to reach, a talent that clearly invaded Tiafoe’s headspace: Tiafoe made a few ghastly unforced errors while trying to send shots far away—too far away—from the Spanish teenager. Alcaraz, who will face No. 5 Casper Ruud, of Norway, in Sunday’s final, dialed up the power when he needed. He deployed surprise drop shots when Tiafoe least expected. Alcaraz also painted the edges of the court, like an artiste. At one point, Tiafoe laughed and shook his head, when the robotic umps revealed, once again, that an Alcaraz winner did indeed clip the line.
There was one of the most exciting moments of the tournament, if not the year. Alcaraz needed one more point to force a first-set tiebreaker. He chased down not one, not two, but three Tiafoe finesse shots: Tiafoe actually sent the final one past Alcaraz, but Alacaraz refused to give up. He scuttled back towards the baseline before whipping an impossible passing shot past Tiafoe. The crowd roared, as if Serena Williams just clinched match point.
Sure, American tennis fans are partisan. The “let’s go Frances” chants give that away. But they deserve some credit: the New York crowd always appreciates the surreal.
“I never played a guy who moves as well as him, honestly,” says Tiafoe. “How he’s able to extend points, incredible. He’s a hell of a player. He’s going to be a problem for a very long time.”
There was also a charming juncture early in the second set, when Alcaraz and Tiafoe dueled on a 17-shot rally. Alcarez made a steller defensive play, as he lunged at an Tiafoe laser up the line; Alcarez somehow got his racket on it, sending the ball back over the net to extend the point. After Alcaraz eventually forced a backhand error from Tiafoe, the American leapt over the net and waved a hand at him, as if to say, “are you kidding me?” They laughed.
If this is the future of tennis, expect such joyous moments for years.
There was that lob in the fifth set, that got him to match point. Alcaraz ran down a Tiafoe attempt, slid on his shoes as if he was on clay—Ashe is the hardest of hardcourts—and lofted a winner right at the baseline. One last message: Alcaraz was just too good tonight.
Made In Spain
Alcaraz was born into the game. Hailing from El Palmar, a district of the city of Murcia—where a giant mural now hangs in his honor—his father Carlos ran a tennis academy. His grandfather was the first member of a tennis club. He received his first racket when he was three. His coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, is the former world No. 1 from Spain: he won the French Open in the same year, 2003, Alcaraz was born.
Alcaraz has won four tournaments this year, in Rio, Miami, Barcelona, and Madrid. Like the U.S. Open, Miami is a hardcourt event, and one of the most prestigious outside of the majors: there, in early April, Alcaraz downed Ruud in the final. In Madrid, he bounced his idol Rafael Nadal, then-world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, and No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany in successive matches.
The winner of the Alcarez-Ruud final will be the new world No. 1. If Alcaraz prevails, he’d become the youngest top-ranked player ever. He’s played nearly 10 hours of tennis in his last two matches. Fatigue could set in. But Alcaraz is also 19 and incredibly fit.
“No matter what I’m fighting for or what I am, I [am] just going for it and enjoy[ing] the moment,” he says.
Write to Sean Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org.