There’s something about the way that Carlos Alcaraz hits the ball.
It’s not just the sheer power, the way he pulverises it into all sides of the court, or the firebomb serve, which can reach 134mph, or the clever angles or the drop shots. It’s the way he hits through it; the cleanliness and smoothness of the ball striking. It looks so natural and uncomplicated.
Stefanos Tsitsipas hadn’t faced Alcaraz before they met in the third round of the US Open on Friday evening, but after losing a rip-roaring third-round encounter on a raucous Arthur Ashe Stadium he had nothing but kind words to say about the 18-year-old. And what particularly stood out for Tsitsipas?
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“His ball speed was incredible. I've never seen someone hit the ball so hard. It took time to adjust. It took time to kind of develop my game around his game style.
“I was returning pretty deep, applying pressure on my returns. I don't know how much harder I needed to hit my return in order to apply pressure. But he seemed to be dealing with it really well, comfortably, hitting winners after the first return of mine, just being so much in control, which was surprising, especially in the fifth set.”
Alcaraz blazed 61 winners as he claimed the biggest win of his career so far. He started the match on fire and, even more impressively, finished it in the ascendancy after failing to win a game in a 27-minute fourth set.
“I have never seen someone play such a good fifth set, honestly,” said third seed Tsitsipas.
“It's kind of bitter, especially after such an incredible fourth set by my side, dominating, being just so aggressive, not dwelling on the past. It was a great fourth set. I felt like he played the fifth one completely the way he played the first set basically, careless, going for every single shot.
“I didn't expect him to raise his level so much, especially after having lost the fourth set this way. He was a completely different player.”
This felt like a coming-of-age match for Alcaraz, who is coached by former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero and has drawn comparisons with fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal because of his explosive forehand. Nadal and Alcaraz met in Madrid earlier this year – on Alcaraz’s 18th birthday – and the 20-time Grand Slam champion was impressed with the potential of his opponent.
“He already has a great level of tennis today, but I really believe that he is going to be a fantastic player in the near future…I really believe that he's a complete player.
“Being one of the best players in the world and fighting for the most important titles is something very difficult, but I really believe that he's one of the guys who can do it.”
Alcaraz was ranked No 120 in the world when he faced Nadal in May; he’s now 55 and set to climb higher after his history-making US Open run. Alcaraz is the youngest player to reach the fourth round at a major since 1992 and is also the youngest player to beat a top-three opponent at a major since 17-year-old Michael Chang beat world No 1 Ivan Lendl and world No 3 Stefan Edberg at Roland Garros in 1989. He’s also breaking new ground in New York – where his attacking game has quickly made him a fan favourite – as he is the youngest man to reach the US Open fourth round since Chang, 17, and Pete Sampras, 18, in 1989. He will be fancied to make even more history as he faces unseeded German Peter Gojowczyk in the fourth round.
Even if Alcaraz doesn’t go any further, there’s a strong sense his time will come. “I truly believe a star is born,” said Eurosport’s Alex Corretja, who was particularly impressed with the way his fellow Spaniard rallied to beat Tsitsipas in the fifth set. The third seed seemed to be on top after dominating the fourth set, but Alcaraz rebounded superbly, hitting winners, saving the only break-point chance in the final set and then winning it in the tiebreak.
“I am very proud of Carlos because what he has just done is huge, it’s so difficult – not just to beat Tstisipas, which is almost impossible. It’s the way he did it – how brave he was,” said Corretja.
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Tsitsipas said afterwards that he believes Alcaraz “can be a contender for Grand Slam titles” in the future, and it will be fascinating to see whether he continues to push on after this breakthrough. He had hardly played competitively on hard courts before this year, with most of his success on clay. His three Challenger titles in 2020 all came on the dirt and he had not played a top-300 opponent on hard courts before the start of 2021. But he has quickly adapted and seems to have the game to be a threat on all surfaces, with his serve seemingly the main area for improvement.
“When you make a salad and you are putting ingredients inside the salad, he has plenty of ingredients to become a great player,” was the neat analogy used by Nadal after beating Alcaraz in Madrid.
But what about those comparisons with Nadal? It’s actually another 20-time champion that Alcaraz thinks his game better resembles.
“If I have to say one player that is similar to my game, I think it's [Roger] Federer,” he said after the win.
“I think similar as my game, trying to be aggressive all the time. I think it's a good comparison for me. Trying to be aggressive all the time with the forehand, backhand. I think I have to improve a little bit the serve. But I think is similar, yeah.”
If Alcaraz’s career pans out like either Nadal or Federer then he will have done alright.
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