Across the springtime of 2022 and culminating at the end of summer, a 19-year-old Spaniard named Carlos Alcaraz made history of the highest order in his profession.
Alcaraz was astonishing during that span, establishing himself as the first teenager in the men’s game since Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005 to capture a major when he took the U.S. Open title. This electrifying performer now resides at No.1 in the world and will probably conclude the year at the top despite an abdominal injury preventing him from competing at the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin.
To be sure, Alcaraz has been the sport’s “Man of the Year” in so many ways. And yet, a fellow teenager has now joined the Spaniard in the top ten, and that surely is no mean feat.
Denmark’s Holger Rune celebrated the most stupendously successful week of his career by improbably toppling the six-time champion Novak Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters crown. Rune upended the game’s greatest front runner with a final round triumph he will surely remember for the rest of his life. Somehow, despite being in one precarious position after another—and finding himself dangerously low on oxygen at the end— Rune fended off a tennis icon who had swept 13 matches in a row over the autumn. Rune upended an unwavering yet apprehensive Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to garner his first Masters 1000 title. The grit and gumption he displayed on this auspicious occasion was ample evidence that he authentically has a champion’s mentality, a wealth of talent and a reservoir of courage that must be deeply admired.
It was a fascinating contest from beginning to end. Djokovic was unstoppable in the first set, breaking Rune in the fourth game when the precocious Dane served two double faults which seemed largely caused by overzealousness. Djokovic won 21 of 26 points on serve, nursed the one break he got very professionally, and outmaneuvered Rune time and again from the backcourt. His controlled aggression was first rate. Serving for that opening set at 5-3, Djokovic closed it out at love.
He then reached 0-40 on the Rune serve in the opening game of the second set, but squandered that opportunity flagrantly with an errant backhand passing shot, a netted forehand second serve return and a cautious overhead that eventually cost him the point. Rune held on sedulously, and soon moved to 3-0. That opening game was critical, changing the complexion of the set and allowing Rune to believe he was in with a chance.
Rune held serve the rest of the way to make it one set all. But, once more, Djokovic took command. He broke the Dane for a 3-1 third set lead when Rune went for broke on a big second serve down the T and double faulted. Djokovic sought to cement his advantage in the fifth game, opening up a 30-0 lead and later advancing to 40-30. He stood one point away from a 4-1 lead which might have proved insurmountable, but Rune made the Serbian pay for a backhand approach lacking sting and direction, passing Djokovic cleanly down the line off the backhand.
Rune managed crucially to break back, closing the gap to 3-2 and denying Djokovic a hold he should have had. Djokovic was visited at the changeover by the trainer, who attended to a left quad issue that was burdening the Serbian. But thereafter Djokovic seemed physically fine and appeared to be wearing Rune down. Leading 4-3, Djokovic pressed hard for a break, but again Rune obstinately stood his ground and came up with the goods in the clutch.
There were two deuces in that eighth game, but the Dane refused to allow Djokovic to reach break point. On both deuce points, the 19-year-old unleashed dazzling backhand winners down the line before holding on gamely. The set went to 5-5, and Rune’s opportunism was again showcased. Djokovic was ahead 30-0 but Rune collected four points in a row to seal the break, taking the last two on unprovoked mistakes from Djokovic.
And so Rune served for the match in the twelfth game of the third set with a 6-5 lead. His lungs were almost empty as Djokovic probed time and again to climb into a tie-break. It was hard to imagine if Djokovic managed to break back that Rune would be able to stay with him in that playoff. He was exhausted from the mental, emotional and physical strain of the hard fought third set.
Six times in that last game Djokovic stood at break point, but he could not convert. Rune’s temerity when it counted was almost breathtaking. He erased the first break point by lacing a forehand down the line for a winner, and then benefitted from a shocking Djokovic netted running forehand on the second. Then Djokovic had complete control on his third break point, only to send a backhand drop shot into the net.
Rune remained unrelenting, saving the fourth break point with an overhead winner, and erasing the fifth when Djokovic pulled a backhand pass wide with a clear opening. Rune reached match point for the first time but his explosive second serve landed long for a double fault. Djokovic advanced to break point for the sixth and last time, only to be stymied by a service winner from the Dane. Soon Rune was at match point for the second time, and he closed out the account stylishly with a forehand pass at the feet of Djokovic, who was coaxed into a netted half volley. For the first time ever in 31 Masters 1000 tournament finals, Djokovic had lost after securing the opening set. Walking on court with Rune in Paris, Djokovic’s career record overall after winning the first set was 891-38 (just shy of 96%), which is a higher success rate than any other male player in the Open Era.
Through nearly the entire last game of the encounter, Rune knew full well he had to finish it off there. Djokovic was well aware that his opponent was physically spent. Both players understood that the match was totally on the line; Djokovic would almost surely have prevailed in the tie-break had they gone there. For Djokovic, the loss was disappointing but not necessarily devastating. He put himself in a position to win twice, but did not realize his goal.
Yet he recognized that perhaps the match he played in the penultimate round against Stefanos Tsitsipas had taken a toll on him mentally. He had crushed Tsitsipas in the first set. From 2-2 in the first set he won five games in a row and then had a 0-30 lead on the Greek competitor’s serve early in the second set. Tsitsipas escaped and stretched Djokovic to his limits before the Serbian came through from a mini-break down at 3-4 in the third set tie-break to win four points in a row. Djokovic was victorious 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4) but that victory required an inordinate amount of emotional energy.
An exuberant Rune was ready to pounce if given the opportunity. He did just that.
In fact, Rune set a Masters 1000 tournament record with five wins over players ranked in the top ten. His Paris indoor journey started when he fought back valiantly to defeat Stan Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), saving three match points in the process (two in the second set, one in the third). After that escape, Rune stopped Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-1, Andrey Rublev 6-4, 7-5, Alcaraz 6-3, 6-6 retired, Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-2 and then Djokovic.
Rune’s dynamic rise into the top ten has not happened by accident. He has won 19 of his last 21 matches, appearing in four consecutive ATP Tour finals during that remarkable span. He was beaten in the title round contest at Sofia by Marc-Andrea Huesler, won Stockholm over Tsitsipas, lost to Auger-Aliassime in the Basel final and now is the Rolex Paris Masters champion. Auger-Aliassime had won three straight titles before Rune stopped him in Paris. Djokovic had not lost since Auger-Aliassime defeated him at the Laver Cup. Rune refused to be intimidated by the size of their reputations and the strength of their recent records.
Rune wisely decided to skip the Next Gen ATP Finals this week in Milan. He will fittingly be the first alternate for the Nitto ATP Finals coming up in Turin starting on November 13. I have no doubt he will be ranked among the top five in the world by this time next year, and perhaps even reside among the top three. What impressed me the most in his match with Djokovic was his adaptability. Although Djokovic often set the tempo in that duel, Rune’s tactical skills were outstanding. At times he looped forehands and sent soft and low sliced backhands over the net to prevent Djokovic from feeding off of his pace. In other instances, Rune hit out freely and knocked the cover off the ball. He constantly shifted his strategy and Djokovic could not easily anticipate what was coming next. Rune employed the backhand down the line drop shot skillfully as another tool to keep Djokovic off guard.
No one in the game opens up the court better than Rune to set up forehand winners produced with a shade of sidespin that fade elusively away from his adversaries. Djokovic was the only player all week in Paris to comfortably return Rune’s serve, but on the big points Rune had an uncanny knack for finding the corners and landing big first serves. He saved ten of twelve break points against Djokovic. Moreover, he converted all three of his break points against a renowned opponent. Djokovic broke him twice but Rune would have lost his serve three more times if he had not performed mightily when his plight looked bleak.
What was most demonstrable at the Rolex Paris Masters was Rune’s propensity to play with immense poise under pressure. Not only did he survive that skirmish with the three time major champion Wawrinka in the opening round, but he somehow overcame Djokovic despite winning five fewer points across the three sets (97 to 92). Rune played the biggest points better than one of the most formidable match players of all time. He is a highly charged young player who has rubbed some players the wrong way with his high intensity bouts of abrasiveness on the court, but his comportment in Paris was very impressive and he did not put a foot out of line during his appointment with Djokovic. He handled the occasion awfully well under the circumstances.
In the weeks and months ahead, Rune will become a target of lesser ranked players looking to enlarge their reputations by virtue of striking down more accomplished adversaries. He will feel a different kind of pressure when he moves through the 2023 season in search of the premier prizes. But this is an enormously ambitious individual who is reminiscent of Alcaraz in terms of his outlook, sense of self, and mentality. They may well develop a stirring rivalry over the next five to ten years that will captivate galleries all over the world. Throw Auger-Aliassime into the mix with Alcaraz and Rune as well.
Tennis will be in exceedingly good shape in the years ahead. Djokovic remains in the forefront of the sport and he is a very young 35. The 36-year-old Nadal is not yet done by any means. But the younger generation is upon us, and it is apparent that Holger Rune is going to take his place among the game’s most illustrious players with increasing force, persuasion and urgency.
COMMENT: Is A Happy Carlos Alcaraz Too Good To Be True?
Carlos Alcaraz has put fun back into professional tennis.
Even the stoic Novak Djokovic has been taken by the fun times. Instead of frowning when Alcaraz comes up with one of his amazing winners, Novak releases a broad smile that turns his bearded face into a fan-winning appeal.
Who would have thought that Novak would become such a fan favorite in his old age as he attracts even Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal fans, and maybe some Alcaraz lovers. That last one may be difficult to believe, considering the almost cult-like following of Alcaraz.
OPPONENTS EVEN JOIN CARLOS’ FUN
It’s the boyish smile that Carlos uses to so easily lure tennis fans into his fan base. Opponents even join the fun when Alcaraz puts on another amazing stunt on the court, or sometimes while sliding to hit a winner off what looked like a sure winner by his opponents.
Even British star Daniel Evans couldn’t ignore the exuberance of Alcaraz in their third-round match at the U.S. Open. Alcaraz comes up with another one of his amazing shots to win a point, and Evans breaks into an ear-to-ear smile. Everyone is happy.
Yes, Carlos Alcaraz is almost too good to be true.
ALCARAZ FILLS THE GAP LEFT BY FEDERER AND NADAL
Yes, the amazing 20-year-old Spaniard gives tennis the bump it needs in the new generation of players after the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic heydays. Of course, Djokovic is still trying to add to his record-setting number of Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic is still very dangerous. It could be a spectacular final if Novak and Alcaraz could work their way into another Grand Slam final as they did at Wimbledon.
Of course, even after taking much of the fire out of Alexander Zverev in straight sets in the quarterfinals, Alcaraz isn’t home free yet. Not with former champion Daniil Medvedev standing in his path in Friday’s semifinals before a possible showdown with Djokovic.
WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN’S SIDE OF THINGS?
It’s anyone’s guess which semifinalist will walk off with the women’s crown on Saturday.
The only Grand Slam champion left, Australian Open champ and new world’s No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka, is in the bottom half of the draw, and must take on red-hot Madison Keys in Thursday’s semifinals.
Wimbledon titlist Marketa Vondrousova didn’t provide much of a test for 2017 U.S. Open finalist Keys in a 6-4, 6-1 loss in the quarterfinals. As good as Keys has been lately, Sabalenka will be difficult to handle.
That leaves young Coco Gauff or French runner-up Karolina Muchova as the other possible finalist. Sabalenka appears to be too strong and aggressive, not to mention talented, for the other three semifinalists.
Where’s French champion Iga Swiatek or high-ranked Jessica Pegula? Of course, both were wiped out in the round of 16, Pegula by Keys and Swiatek by unpredictable Jelena Ostapenko.
That leaves the gate wide open for Sabalenka’s fourth straight Grand Slam semifinal.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Lesson Failed: Never Take A Legend For Granted
Carlos Alcaraz should have learned at least one important lesson from his marathon loss to Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati final.
Never take anything for granted against a legend such as Djokovic.
Alcaraz paid a big price for ignoring that lesson in Sunday afternoon’s scorching heat on a blistering hard court.
NOVAK APPEARED TO BE HEADED FOR DEFEAT
Djokovic appeared to be a beaten man when Alcaraz served with a 4-3 lead in the second set. He was virtually wiped out, or so it appeared.
But the match really was just beginning. Alcaraz won the first point of that eighth game of the set, and everything appeared to be in order for the young Spaniard.
Boy, did things change quickly as Alcaraz carelessly committed four consecutive unforced errors. Suddenly, it was a new game with Novak looking alive and well. Four games later, they were in a tiebreaker and Alcaraz held his only match point of the day.
Djokovic was on fire then and on his way to a 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) victory.
LOSS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD
Of course, this one really didn’t mean that much to either Djokovic or Alcaraz. They are after bigger goals.
The big one comes up in New York in almost three weeks, if both players can make it to the final of the U.S. Open.
Alcaraz can only get better. After all, he’s only 20 years old. He made a remarkable improvement over his performance in losing to Tommy Paul a week earlier in Toronto.
You wouldn’t think Djokovic can get much better than the game he played in the Cincinnati final. Yes, it should be steaming hot in Arthur Ashe Stadium, too.
FIVE SETS A TELLING STORY
This time it will be five sets, and there is no telling who will survive the heat best, if Alcaraz gets another shot at Djokovic. For both players to make it through two weeks in New York to the Sunday final would be a major achievement for Djokovic and defending champion Alcaraz.
Either way, it probably is just a matter of time before Djokovic gives up the chase for more Grand Slam titles. It is worth it in the end of other majors for Djokovic only if he can prevail through the final shot.
But anything short of other major titles wouldn’t be worth what Djokovic went through Sunday in Cincinnati for 229 minutes. Of course, Alcaraz went through similar circumstances at the French Open.
But he’s 16 years younger than Djokovic.
All of the great ones eventually have to surrender to time.
COCO IS A STAR IN THE MAKING
Coco Gauff likely will become one of the great ones before she finishes. A Grand Slam title in New York would set her on her way to greatness.
The 19-year-old, much like Alcaraz, is loaded with weapons. First, she is a great athlete.
That was obvious to me as early as May 2019 when I spotted Gauff resting on a bench at courtside after a long workout at LTP Tennis in Charleston. She already had qualified for the $100K ITF tournament there.
I interviewed Coco for just a few minutes before she was called back to the court. A month later she was in the round of 16 at the French Open.
JUST A MATTER OF TIME FOR GAUFF
Just 15 years old, it was just a matter of time before Gauff would become a superstar.
She isn’t quite there yet, but after winning titles in Washington as well as her first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, Gauff is getting close. She still has two more chances to win a Grand Slam title as a teenager, and the next step could be New York. She already has the experience of a runner-up finish at last year’s French Open.
Gauff really didn’t have much trouble upending Karolina Muchova, 6-3, 6-4, at Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open on Sunday.
But again, the draw for the U.S. Open will be filled with players capable of winning a Grand Slam title, even including the likes of Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, ranked just ninth in the world. As a left-hander, she already has the edge over most of the players in the field.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
WIMBLEDON: An immense Alcaraz, but the changing of the guard is yet to come…
Alcaraz’s merits compared with Djokovic’s demerits. Just a bad day among many so-so days for the Serbian, nonetheless No. 2 of the ATP ranking? Or is it the start of an inexorable decline? Farewell to the Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors?
NOTE: This article was written in Italian and has been Translated by Carla Montaruli
Carlitos Alcaraz triumphed, cheers for Carlitos Alcaraz. The feat he accomplished at only 20 years of age and in his fourth tournament on grass is remarkable, remarkable indeed. He is the third youngest champion ever after 17-year-old Becker and 20-year-old Borg, as well as the third Spaniard after Santana and Nadal to win the trophy. Being able to beat a player in the fifth set after 4 hours and 43 minutes who is the king of marathons, a seven-time champion and had won 45 straight matches over the last 10 years on Centre Court, can only be considered a great exploit.
Credit where credit is due. Alcaraz played beautiful tennis, complete in all aspects, bold forehands and backhands, powerful and hit on the rise, drop-shots, acrobatic and diving volleys, hanging smashes, aces and winning serves. All this with great mental solidity displayed throughout the entire match: after losing the first set badly, enduring the tension of a second set tiebreak which had not started well for him, then dominating the third set and finally closing the encounter as a consummate veteran in the fifth with a last service game played brilliantly after tenaciously defending very well the break he had secured in the third game of the final set.
A 20-year-old young man could not be asked for more. A well-deserved applause and congratulations also for defending that first place in the world rankings that he will hold for the twenty-ninth week, hoping to keep it as long as possible.
Staying at the top for 389 weeks like the extraordinary champion he beat on Sunday would mean dominating the world stage for over seven years. Over seven years! And…as I write this I wonder if we have paid enough attention to such a feat in all that time!
Yes, because you write 310 weeks, Federer’s weeks as world No.1, then you write 389, that is Djokovic’s weeks spent in the same spot: there and then they seem like just numbers…but only when you divide them by 52, the weeks in a year, do you realize the immensity of these extended dominances within a sport whose growing competitiveness and many booming young guns are emphasized almost every day.
Crazy in the case of both Federer and Djokovic with the ATP scepter in their hands, because each of them – as the fourth part of the Fab Four – had to confront at least with the other three. All four have been world number one. Still, for 699 weeks, almost 13 years and a half, Roger and Nole were number one, Nadal was king for 209 weeks and Murray for 41. Add them up and that’s another five years—eighteen years of reign for four kings. Written so many times off the top of my head…but upon reflection this is impressive stuff. It never remotely happened before.
So here it is… the idea that Carlitos Alcaraz could one day – but we are talking about seven years! – reach Djokovic’s 389-week reign today may seem unreal, absolutely far-fetched.
But…are there perhaps three more champions on the horizon who can recreate a quartet of phenomena like the Fab Four? I don’t see them at all. Will Alcaraz be alone in the driver’s seat for the next few years?
In seven years, 10 or 18 – 18 years was the reign of the Fab Four — phenoms could sprout up almost like mushrooms! Speculating on what will happen in such a long and far away period is a mindless divertissement and I don’t know why it dawned on me…. Except perhaps Holger Rune today – though greatly downgraded by the last duel here at Wimbledon – there doesn’t seem to be a rival of Alcaraz’s caliber right now. Our compatriots may see our Sinner two steps below Alcaraz and one step below Rune, but neither do they see other “prospects” ahead of him. Djokovic called Sinner one of the leaders of the new generation. His fifth place in the Race, along with eighth in ATP ranking certify such status.
But then for a year or two, or maybe even three, if Rune and Sinner don’t make giant strides, or if a new rising star doesn’t emerge, Carlitos Alcaraz could easily add a hundred or more weeks to the 29 he has already earned as No. 1.
Or am I venturing into a wild prediction?
Just not to present you with a single scenario I want to say, however, that the most obvious commonplace one could come up with today, after this final that Djokovic shall not cease to regret for at least four reasons – three missed backhands in the tiebreak and a clumsy drive volley which squandered a hard-earned break point for a 2-0 lead in the decider – is that we have witnessed the changing of the guard.
It will make so many headlines, sure. I may have uttered it too, in one of the many videos I did for Ubi Instagram, for Ubitennis, and the IntesaSanPaolo website. But in my opinion, it’s not true yet.
Djokovic is not ready to retire. He is not going to quit, even if the dream of achieving a Grand Slam has vanished, maybe forever. Farewell to Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors? I think so. He is still world No. 2, isn’t he?
I had written throughout the tournament – you may check – that I didn’t think I had seen the best Djokovic. He had not been at his best against Hurkacz or even Rublev. And, as much as many readers disagreed, neither had he dominated Sinner as he had last year in the last three sets when he had been truly unplayable. Demerit to him and credit to Sinner, as often happens simultaneously.
I wrote that Hurkacz had thrown the first set out of the window and when leading 5-4 in the tiebreak of the second with two serves at disposal to put it away he had not been faultless but had shown a lack of personality. I also wrote that Rublev had been unlucky in the fourth set on the occasion of some break points he had failed to convert.
We did not see the best Djokovic, in my opinion, even in the final against Alcaraz. Otherwise, he would have been two sets up.
Oh yes, come on: the three backhand errors he made in the first tiebreak he lost after 15 won were not errors from Djokovic, the champion who has always played the crucial pointsbetter than anyone else, certainly better than Federer and Murray, perhaps equal to Nadal.. In particular, match points aside – what about that, dear Roger? – those tiebreaks that are said to be worth double.
Those three backhands, a drop shot at 3-2 when he was a minibreak ahead, the one at 6-5 and setpoint after he had deftly returned Carlitos’ serve, the one at 6-6 were errors worthy of a Hurkacz, a Norrie or a Shapovalov, not a Djokovic!
I recall – just quoting from memory because I haven’t time to engage in dutiful and thorough research – that Nole’s record in best-of-five matches after winning the first set is monstrous. Imagine after winning the first two sets.
Here, a Nole in ordinary form, even against that very inspired Alcaraz, would have started the third set with a two-set lead.
I know that with ifs and buts, you don’t go anywhere. But I’m pretty sure – and I think Nole is too – that if the two sets lead never came into being, it was more because of Nole’s demerit than Carlitos’ merit.
But is this a random demerit, due to a bad day and a series of bad days as it appeared to me throughout the tournament, or is it a sign of the slow inexorable decline of the Serbian who is beginning to come to terms with his age? That drive volley with which he dissipated the all-important break point and the chance to rise 2-0 in the fifth set was another topical moment. Yet, it was not Novak to succeed in a decisive breakthrough, but Carlos three minutes later.
The fury with which, at the changeover, Nole smashed his racket on the net post is revealing. Nole had missed the train to victory and, experienced as he is, he understood it.
I would say that this casual contingent demerit or signal of inexorable decline is the discriminating point of our debate.
Bravo, bravo to Alcaraz for taking advantage of it with precocious maturity, but did Djokovic stumble over a mediocre day by chance, because it can happen to everyone, even to younger tennis players, or because even he – an extraordinary phenomenon – is on that rickety path where age starts taking its toll?
If the most plausible answer we believe in is the first one – and that is the one I believe in – we cannot yet speak of a changing of the guard.
Djokovic can safely return to the throne of tennis, perhaps win the US Open and/or the next ATP Finals in Turin as well as an 11th Australian Open. Push the undoubtedly great Alcaraz back to second place.
If, on the other hand, the right answer is the second, this Wimbledon definitely enshrines the changing of the guard. But, even in this scenario, only the changing of the guard at the top and the handover between Djokovic and Alcaraz. Not a generational changing of the guard though, at least for now and the very near future, because even a subdued and slightly tarnished Djokovic is stronger than Rune, Sinner, and Tsitsipas on almost any surface. At worst he would be the second-best tennis player in the world. The others, Sinner included, would do anything to stand where he stands.
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