For those who follow tennis closely, Carlos Alcaraz was a “when, not if” name. The news came from Spain, where he has been training at the academy of the former French Open winner Juan Carlos Ferrero since he was 15, that fame would not be too far away.
Now it is here.
Eighteen-year-old Alcaraz, who finished 55th in the US Open world rankings, introduced himself in a big way on Friday by beating number 3 seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in a four-hour and seven-minute epic. It ended in the tie-break of the fifth set when Alcaraz pelted his 61st winner of the game: an inside-out forehand that Tsitsipas had no chance of pulling his bat to score a 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 0 to finish -6, 7-6 win.
“His ball speed was incredible,” said Tsitsipas. “I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball so hard.”
Alcaraz is now moving into the round of 16, where he is preferred to qualifier Peter Gojowczyk, the 141st player in the world to pull his own longshot through the draw.
But the story isn’t just about Alcaraz’s breakout in a major’s second week. That would always happen at some point. The overall picture here was that Alcaraz brought a dash of star quality to the sport, a flair for the big stage that will certainly remind many fans of another Spaniard who has won the US Open four times.
Of course, comparing an 18-year-old to Rafael Nadal is inherently unfair. And stylistically, Alcaraz does not fly over the course the way he modeled his game Nadal. In fact, he said after the game that his style was more like Roger Federer. But where the connection to his compatriot is easy to see is the relentlessness of Alcaraz’s attack, his fist-pumping flair, and the ability to raise his level in the big moment.
And New York fans absolutely loved him for it.
“The crowd was behind me and pushed me up every moment,” said Alcaraz. “It surprises me.”
The palpable craze for Arthur Ashe Stadium started when Alcaraz got off to a quick start, but it really started to turn into a crescendo when he came in after two breaks in the third set to level out and then win the tie-break with a combination of laced backhands that seemed to kiss every line and nifty drop shots that annoyed his opponent.
The fans who jumped on the Alcaraz bandwagon also likely had something to do with Tsitsipas, who turned a bit of a heel at the tournament with a series of long, eight-minute toilet breaks after the sets in his first two games.
Other players began challenging Tsitsipas for the tactic – which wasn’t against the rules but widely viewed as unsportsmanlike – and it became one of the big themes of the US Open. Former champion Andy Murray, who lost to Tsitsipas in the first round, was extremely vocal during the game, after the game and on Twitter the next day.
That was enough to turn the crowd against him, and Tsitsipas was booed when he left the seat after the third set – although this time he managed to cut the time it took to change to about three minutes.
At this point in the game it looked like Tsitsipas would take control and Alcaraz might have made his best shot by now. Tsitsipas ran away slightly on the fourth set to level the match, but Alcaraz came up with a different approach to the decision.
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Showing no fear of his opponent, the venue or the moment, Alcaraz simply started shooting the ball and hit even harder than before. And after holding the serve at Love to force a tiebreaker, he managed to win the tiebreaker with five clean winners in a spectacular show of power and precision.
“I’ve never seen anyone play such a good fifth set, to be honest,” said Tsitsipas.
And by the time it was over, Alcaraz had put his name in a fairly elitist society and was the youngest player to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam at the 1992 French Open since Andrei Medvedev, and the youngest at the US Open since 1989 when Michael Chang and Pete Sampras did it. He also outperformed Sampras and Andre Agassi, becoming the youngest player to beat a top-3 opponent at the US Open since 1973.
Despite all the hype surrounding Alcaraz, this was a legitimate surprise. Although he won his first ATP title in July on clay in Umag, Croatia, and steadily climbed the rankings, his résumé was not filled with victories against top players. Just last week, Alcaraz’s game failed in the semi-finals of the Winston-Salem Open against 90th-placed Mikael Ymer.
It’s a long journey from there to the largest tennis court in the world against one of the title favorites. But now that Alcaraz has successfully made that jump, get used to seeing him on the big stage. What he did on Friday was just the beginning.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken