We have witnessed the most interesting US Open tournament for a number of years. There were great matches, individual stories and youngest #1 player to boot. However, my biggest takeaway from the US Open is the revival of a true all-court player at the top of tennis.
Carlos Alcaraz played an incredible US Open. Just to get to the final, he won three five-set matches in a row. That is some record and the first player to do that since Stefan Edberg in 1992 (who won that edition). Along his route to victory, Alcaraz saved match point against Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinal and struggled in the third set in the final against Ruud. But Alcaraz lifted his game incredibly well, finding the big serves to win the tiebreak and put on a serving clinic in the fourth set with nine aces.
Alcaraz announced himself on the world stage twelve months ago when he memorably dispatched Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round of the 2021 US Open. Tsitsipas was the experienced player and French Open finalist, but ultimately did not have an answer to Alcaraz’s brilliance and persistence, going down in five sets. Alcaraz finished 2021 in fine style, taking the Next Gen tournament in Turin defeating Sebastian Korda. A tournament designed to help bring through the next generation of players to the ATP Tour.
And it seems to have worked because in 2022 is where Alcaraz made his big move. During the spring he became the youngest man to win Miami and then later backed that up with a win in the Madrid Masters. In fact, Alcaraz became one of the few players to defeat Djokovic and Nadal in the Madrid tournament. Alcaraz went off the boil for a few months from the French open right up to Cincinnati. However, he has come back with a bang, claiming the US Open and #1 ranking.
This has many implications on a number of levels for men’s tennis and throws down the gauntlet for a number of players, from different generations.
Alcaraz’s ascent challenges Djokovic and Nadal to come up with something good in 2023 to usurp him. However, more importantly, it puts quite a few noses out of joint for the “Next Gen” guys. The players between the age of 23 and 27 who were tipped to take over from Djokovic and Nadal. It is a long list, consisting of Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Zverev, Shapovalov, Rublev and Kyrgios, Out of this list, Medvedev is the only player so far to win a major title, and become world #1 earlier this year. Tsitsipas, Zverev and Kyrgios have made finals but each lost their one opportunity so far.
This leaves those players with the distinct possibility of becoming yesterday’s men already. There is precedent. The previous generation fell by the wayside, unable to bag a major between them. That generation included the likes of Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin born between 1990 and 1992. These players are now in their 30s and on the decline. Dominic Thiem, born in 1993, did win the US Open in 2020 but his overly physical game saw him suffer dreadful long term injuries and loss of form.
This means there are a whole host of scarred tennis players over the last ten years who have succumbed to Djokovic, Nadal and previously Roger Federer.
However, Carlos Alcaraz brings something different to the table, something not seen for a number of years. Which is a refreshing approach to how tennis is played and can be played. From the very first points against Tsitsipas in the 2021 US Open, anyone watching knew something special was brewing. To note, Alcaraz playing this brand of tennis is only part of the story. Major credit also needs to go to Juan Carlos Ferrero. Ferrero was a French Open champion and world #1 in the summer of 2003. Ferrero was nicknamed “the Mosquito” for his live wire game and forehand. There is no doubt Ferrero is able to bring out Alcaraz’s best qualities, and encouraged his aggressive approach to the game.
The reason is a simple one, Ferrero is old school. Ferrero grew up in an era where learning the fundamentals was very important. Proper volley technique, a quality transition game, recognising a short ball and dealing with it. These are the things that have been severely lacking in many top 20 players over the last ten years. Alcaraz has the benefit of being coached by a player who has been there and done it at the highest level. Ferrero was a fan of Sampras growing up and played against Federer on numerous occasions, Alcaraz plays the type of tennis those guys played. Being offensive but also able to play great defense, that is rare.
To illustrate this fact, in the US Open final, Alcaraz went to the net 45 times and won 34 points. Ruud, meanwhile, came to the net 36 times where he won 23 points. This indicated it was a pure all-court contest, with great offence and amazing defense. It also shows that Ruud is improving all the time, his nerves and backhand two factors he now needs to work on in his quest to be a major champion. Incidentally, in the 2021 final, Medvedev went to net on just 12 occasions against Novak Djokovic.
It is now going to be a very interesting end to 2022 and 2023 coming up. The “Next Gen” need to respond. Already, they are playing catch up.
Tsitsipas is coached by his father and previously Patrick Mouratoglou. Tsitsipas has serious technical flaws which are in danger of totally ruining his career as an elite player. Zverev has issues on an off the court, notwithstanding the bizarre injury he suffered in Paris. Which was due to being in too much of a hyper active state, not able to control his nerves. Kyrgios has spent his entire career without a professional coach or ex Top 10 player. Nerves and a hot head getting the better of him again and again. The same can be said of Rublev to a lesser extent. Although his technically limited game also prevents him getting further than quarterfinals right now.
It shows how important it is as a junior to receive proper technical coaching to achieve at the top. Proper fundamentals need to supplement tactics and resilience at the elite level.
As with Magnus Norman who turned Stan Wawrinka into a world class player, old school players and coaches can help to make tennis a more exciting game again. Ex Top 20 player Wayne Ferreira is turning Francis Tiafoe into a much more dynamic player. Encouraging Tiafoe to “rush and crush”, serve big and use his athleticism, an exciting brand of tennis indeed. Seeing Tiafoe at the US Open has to be a wake up call for fellow American Taylor Fritz, who goes nowhere near the net and plays much too passive to challenge for major titles, despite his big serve and good ground game.
It is entirely possible that Alcaraz will concede the #1 ranking in 2023. Mainly due to him being so young, I believe his level will drop. However, I am convinced that long term, Alcaraz will spend many weeks as #1 in the world. The Next Gen players need to up their level and consistency. The challenge they needed collectively is well and truly set.