Carlos Alcaraz had taken the long way to his first major final, at the US Open. He had spent more than 20 hours on court. His three previous matches had gone five sets and finished after midnight. In the fourth round and the semifinals, against Marin Cilic and Frances Tiafoe, he had led two sets to one and lost the fourth set, before closing it out in the fifth. In the quarterfinals, against Jannik Sinner, he had saved a match point.
A year ago, Novak Djokovic took a similarly energy-sapping route to the championship match in New York, and it cost him. By the final Sunday, he had no spring in his step, or pop in his serve, and he lost his chance at completing a Grand Slam. Some believed Alcaraz might suffer the same fate. Yes, he’s 19—Djokovic was 34 in 2021—but the Spaniard had to get tired eventually, right? One prediction service made him a surprisingly narrow favorite—52 to 48 percent—to beat Casper Ruud, even though Alcaraz was 4-0 in sets against the Norwegian. All of that time on court, and all of his mind-boggling court coverage, was clearly a concern.
Alcaraz was indeed tired in the final. He managed his way through a 6-4 opening set against Ruud, but he began to slow in the second and third. The miracle gets and out-of-nowhere winners weren’t materializing. In fact, Ruud, known primarily as a clay-court grinder, was proving to be his equal in the speed and shot-making departments. By the middle of the third, the momentum had shifted toward Ruud, and the pro-Alcaraz crowd had gone quiet. With the Spaniard serving at 5-6, Ruud put an Alcarazian, 95-m.p.h. forehand on the sideline to reach set point.