Tennis has been wondering for years what will happen when its biggest stars head for the exits.
If the first week of the US Open is any indication, it might be with a pair of 18-year-olds named Carlos Alcaraz and Emma Raducanu who have invaded where they don’t belong yet, but clearly do.
With howls of “Vamonos!” Alcaraz of Spain ran through the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday, stirring up the turmoil of the tournament by beating Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas to win a five-set classic, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (2 ), 0-6, 7-6 (5).
It’s only been a few months since Tsitsipas, with his wavy dirty blond hair and philosopher-prince monologues about tennis as a form of self-expression, appeared to be the heir to the Big Three of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
But since coughing up a two-set lead over Djokovic in the French Open final, he’s squandered his goodwill with inconsistent play, statements that getting the Covid-19 vaccine isn’t necessary, and an endless series of toilet breaks midway through. the match going on and on. His father, Apostolos, who is also his coach, was in his corner on Friday, but there weren’t many others.
After a few bouts on the field, Alcaraz stepped into Arthur Ashe Stadium as a middleweight boxer looking to land some quick crosses on his opponent’s jaw. Has he ever.
Alcaraz, known as “the next Rafa” in tennis circles, especially in Spain, already had Tsitsipas on his tail in the third game when he ripped a crosscourt forehand from Tsitsipas, who stopped and stared at the goal and shook his head with a ” Are you joking?” laugh.
Alcaraz had just started. By the time he broke Tsitsipas’ serve for the third time to take the first set, the seats of the largest stadium in the sport were filling with thousands of fans acting as if they had been with Alcaraz by name for years. .
It’s funny about young and little-known tennis players like Alcaraz and Raducanu, who were both way outside the top 200 a year ago – developing followings as indie bands. The courts at major tournaments function like small nightclubs. As news spreads about a player whose punches and podium presence are not to be missed, the grandstands and standings around those outdoor courts are swelling beyond capacity, with fans talking years later about catching Alcaraz or Raducanu in a small hall up close, as the early adopters of the Talking Heads still talk about those nights at Max’s Kansas City in New York in the 1970s.
Such was the mood during Thursday’s game by Raducanu at the tennis backcountry known as Court 10 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the last court before the exit from South Gate.
Raducanu, whose parents are Romanian and Chinese, was born in Canada before moving to England when she was 2. She was barely known in England before Wimbledon. There, in her Grand Slam debut, she played her way into the second week of the tournament with her fearless, clean strokes and aversion to giving up an opportunity to pressure her opponent, whether that be hitting of the forehand serve or shooting the second serve that look like first balls.
The Wimbledon run ended dramatically in the round of 16, when she played the No. 1 court in front of 12,000 screaming fans for the first time and suddenly found herself unable to breathe. She withdrew from the match, one set behind and 3-0 to Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, leaving all of England in sorrow.
In an interview on Thursday, Raducanu said what ailed her was physical — simple exhaustion caused by a series of long rallies against a mature opponent — not what most assumed was a panic attack from the pressure of a more intense spotlight than anything she could have anticipated.
“I had been playing at such a high level for so many days and I was not used to it,” said Raducanu after her second round victory over China’s Zhang Shuai. “We had about 20-shot rallies and I couldn’t control my breathing. The doctors advised me not to continue. I hated to retire.”
Since then, Raducanu has played and won many matches, at tournaments in Northern California, Chicago and at the US Open, where she won 10 straight sets, including three wins in the qualifying tournament.
She is tall and slender and athletic in the most graceful way. She stays low to the ground as she moves up and down the field, chasing every ball she has the least chance of reaching. She waits for the service and crouches like a short stop in anticipation of a sharp line drive.
On Thursday afternoon, Raducanu had the crowded crowd at Court 10 chant her name. As she served to win the match against Zheng, the drums began to sound just outside the fence. These weren’t just any drums. It was the booming sounds of the Howard University marching band, which had been performing on the grounds all day. And they played intermittently and played without warning, even as Raducanu was about to throw her ball in the air to serve.
Raducanu said she twisted her mind into thinking the drums were celebrating her. When it was over, a bulging group of fans hung over the fence asking for autographs and selfies. She obliged everyone and almost forgot to grab the racket she dropped in the corner of the field at the last point before she left.
She moves to a bigger stage on Saturday for her third round match against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo.
“I’m ready to play on anything, even the park in the back P17,” she said, referring to the outer practice lanes in Flushing Meadows.
Alcaraz was more than ready. His fight against Tsitsipas lasted more than four hours. After drawing Tsitsipas in one set, Alcaraz trailed 5-2 and two service breaks in the third set, and Tsitsipas bullied him on the field like a man playing a boy. It was a moment when most players, let alone a teenager, would go up against the world’s third player.
Alcaraz did the opposite. He shot to the lines with forehands and backhands, putting Tsitsipas on the run as he chased drop shots and topspin lobs as he tied even at 5-5. Soon Tsitsipas was talking to himself after almost every point. A drop shot and a blistering passing shot took the set in a tiebreaker for Alcaraz, whose trademark is a small unconscious jump he takes after hitting winners.
He milled his fist as the crowd exploded. Only the coach of Alcaraz, the former number 1 in the world, Juan Carlos Ferrero, remained in his seat. Forgive him, he’s been here before. Tsitsipas left the field for another of his signature toilet breaks, to a rousing whoop.
The break worked for Tsitsipas, who took in the next six games to take the fourth set, 6-0. It was another moment when the teenager could have faded.
Instead, he called for a massage on the field and they advanced to the fifth set, trading service games until what seemed an inevitable decisive tiebreaker when the crowd shouted ‘Carlos! Carlos! Carlos!”
Once there, Alcaraz continued to blow, leading with his chin. A forehand straight to Tsitsipas’ belly, which he rimmed into the net, gave Alcaraz three match points. He needed them all, missing an inch at 6-4 on a topspin into the air before a final winner down the line completed the coming out party, with a final blast from the crowd as he collapsed onto the field.
“The best match of my career”, Alcaraz called it.
Almost as good as that Talking Heads show at Max’s in 1976.
This is how tennis continues.