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THE GODS WHO SENT CARLOS ALCARAZ DESERVE OUR DEEPEST THANKS
A sports world that needed a dynamic, humble showman has one in the 19-year-old sensation, who became the youngest men’s player to claim the No. 1 ranking by surviving five-hour, late-night marathons
This was a day, even on the 21st anniversary of an American horror, when New York did what New York always does best. It identified and embraced the arrival of a phenom in its bosom, a godsend on its grand stage. Carlos Alcaraz is only 19 and struggles to grow fuzz on his face — meaning, the denizens of a tennis capital sensed the history happening at the U.S. Open.
They showered him with appreciative roars that had distinct echoes of relief, too. Yes, sports has an arriving superstar who already qualifies as a thrillmaking showman, chases down balls with acrobatic abandon, routinely stays up past 2 a.m. to win five-set thrillers and plays with a flair that allows spectators no bathroom breaks or cocktail runs in fear of missing out. But more urgently, given the times, Alcaraz plays with a joy unimpeded by teen angst or the burnout issues that drag down so many prodigies.
He loves tennis. He loves life. Be honest: Did you love live at 19? How many people of any age love life now? “I always try to have a smile on my face,” he said, “because I feel privileged to be be doing this.” He almost doesn’t seem real, and Alcaraz could not have emerged with better timing, just when tennis and sport and the world at large need his nascent glow.
The Open victory will be his first of numerous Grand Slam titles — into the double digits, we dare expect — if health and karma are willing. He’s the youngest men’s player to be ranked No. 1 and the youngest major champion since his idol and fellow Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, broke through at the French Open in 2005. Alcaraz is built like a tight end, his shoulders stretching from Queens to Manhattan. When he played until 2:23 a.m. to survive Marin Cilic in the fourth round, then returned for a quarterfinal two nights later to beat Jannik Sinner in five hours and 15 minutes, then returned two nights later to beat crowd favorite Frances Tiafoe in four hours and 19 minutes, it crossed my mind that he might be an automaton.
Turns out he’s simply enjoying himself too much to count the hours. Was he not exhausted when he reached the Sunday final against Casper Ruud? “This was not the time to be tired, in the final round of a Grand Slam tournament,” said Alcaraz, fighting back tears after his four-set victory. “You have to give everything you have inside. I can be tired later.”
If it wasn’t a complete passing of the torch in a sport where Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer won 20 of the previous 23 Slams, the blossoming of Alcaraz certainly is summoning the future quickly. “Carlos is 19, and I’m 36. Of course, it’s a handover. I think he will be unstoppable in his career,’’ said Nadal, whose sad surrender to injuries might come sooner than later. The only question, with Federer entering a ceremonial phase assuming he returns at all, is whether Alcaraz can polish off Djokovic and seize the mantle permanently. The narrative is potent: With 21 major titles, Djokovic is only two away from passing Nadal and taking the all-time lead, but he keeps missing opportunities because he refuses COVID-19 vaccines and is barred from playing in the U.S. and Australia. As the clock ticks toward his 36th birthday, Djokovic might not hold off a stallion whose game features the best components of all three legends.
“Everything came so fast. For me, it’s unbelievable,” Alcaraz said of his climb. “It’s something I dreamed since I was a kid, since I started playing tennis. Of course, I’m hungry for more.”
The tennis world is braced for his blitz. “He’s one of these few rare talents that comes up every now and then in sports. That’s what it seems like,” said Ruud, the 23-year-old Norwegian who, with Tiafoe and Sinner, will provide opposition deep into the future. “Let’s see how his career develops, but it’s all going in the right direction. He’s riding that wave. At the moment, he’s the best player in the world, and he deserves that spot.”
Rarely has a champion been so hungry and so humble in the same package. Alcaraz is built to dominate on all surfaces. His groundstrokes are delivered with hammer force, and he finished out the championship with another of his 125-mph-range serves, but he is equally lethal with a drop shot. What he’ll never do is give up — on a point, on a set, on a match, on himself. He challenges his inner beast to “solve problems’’ on the court, venturing into savant territory. It’s almost a miracle that he has navigated the landmines of a lab-like upbringing, having first picked up a racket at 3 while guided by a father who ran a tennis academy. How many kids rebel? How many would prefer to be with friends instead of practicing and traveling under the intense tutelage of a coach, former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, who suggests his project could win 30 Slam events with proper perspective and dedication? Thirty? “He was born to play this kind of tournament, born to play these kinds of matches,” Ferrero said. “Since the moment I started with him, I saw some things that were different than the other guys at his age.”
His comportment, for one. “For me, it’s not a sacrifice at all,” Alcaraz told Sports Illustrated. “I love playing tennis. I love what I do right now. So there are, of course, some times that I, uh, I want to be with my friends or stay at home with family and stuff. But for me, I'm glad to travel a lot playing tennis, playing to live these moments, some beautiful moments in traveling around the world.”
What does he want people to know about him? “I’m a friendly person, a nice person. And I enjoy what I do,” he said.
Not 15 minutes after his victory, Alcaraz was lamenting that his mother and grandfather couldn’t be in New York for his breakthrough. That’s why his tears flowed. He also was overcome with emotion about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, telling the audience from courtside, “My thoughts are with all of you.” There is nothing to dislike about him. If he carries that spirit with him the next two decades, the planet will be blessed.
It’s hard to imagine Alcaraz falling into the traps that have snagged, among others, Naomi Osaka and Jennifer Capriati. His head is on straight, as are his priorities. “It makes me happy to transmit good values to the young,” he said. When he accepted his championship trophy, he placed his hand over his heart and waved to the fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“In tennis, you can mature quickly,” he said. “At tournaments, perhaps I feel a bit older, with more responsibilities, let’s say. But once I’m at home with my family, my friends and the people I have known since I was little, I feel like a 19-year-old kid.”
Even when he was reminded of his accomplishments, rising to the top at an earlier juncture than every great who has played the game, he left room to improve. “I’m overcome myself a little,” he said. “I played great matches, high intensity, during the two weeks like I’ve never done before. I’m really happy to move on to be the No. 1 of the world, still growing. I’m going to work hard again after this week. I’m going to fight for a lot more of this.”
His mission has a chance to cross-pollinate. The other greats of the game, including Nadal and Federer and Djokovic, have been limited in their impact beyond tennis cognoscenti. Carlos Alcaraz, a whirlwind who reaches balls with uncommon foot speed and punishes them with untold force, relates to fans beyond his sport.
He is not a sensation to be overthought. Just enjoy him. And thank the gods for sending him.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.