Carlos Alcaraz tilts his head as he prepares to serve during a training session that is taking place on the same Flushing Meadows court that Rafael Nadal chose in his time, and just 100 meters away he sees the immense mass of cement and gigantic metal tubes where it all began, the Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was there that the young Spaniard beat the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas a couple of years ago — a match that unapologetically announced his arrival on the world stage as a winner and showed that he was more than willing to mark a new era in tennis. At that moment, when he raised his first Grand Slam trophy and became the youngest number one in tennis history, everything changed.
“Yes, a lot has changed,” he agrees. “Let’s just say I’m more famous now. Many people got to know me from then on, although I am still a normal guy. I feel that I am more mature, and I’m a better player, but I am the same as always,” continues the young tennis star, who, unlike on his two previous visits to the city, can no longer walk the streets unnoticed because people are all over him. It is something he’s still trying to process. “Sometimes I like it, and sometimes I don’t. There are many Spaniards here and many Latinos, and it is not easy to walk around… Sometimes I wish they didn’t recognize me, but that is impossible and that is why I have to enjoy that part as well,” he says.
Today, only a couple of years later, Alcaraz is already a long way from the innocent, newly discovered young player. With a New York title and the one obtained last month at Wimbledon under his belt, with more victories (53) and trophies (6) than anyone else this season and the aura of being the role model for a new era in tennis, the young man from El Palmar (Murcia, Spain) is defending his throne, with all that it entails: even more looks, even more pressure, being the one to beat, and, of course, Novak Djokovic breathing down his neck again. If he wins on Day 1 against the Frenchman Alexander Müller, the Serbian will snatch the ATP crown.
They both meet again after the volcanic crossing in Cincinnati and, in the case of the Spaniard, after a summer that has been a competitive roller coaster. Up from the bottom and down from the top. Swerves and curves. “In Friday’s training, all the backhands went very long, and because of that, yesterday’s [Saturday] session was to correct the distance, they all hit the net,” says a specialist player from the side of the court.
The new rivals
“Sure, I feel the pressure, but I prefer not to think about it,” Alcaraz replies to the journalists, who are wondering these days how the defending champion will react after his success in London, and taking into account that last year’s victory in Flushing Meadows was accompanied by a downward trend due to relaxing too much, by his own admission. In any case, he says he has learned his lesson and that despite the unevenness of the summer, he is “prepared” for the face-to-face with Djokovic. Ever on the lookout, the Serb returns full of enthusiasm, after two years of absence, looking for a cup that has eluded him since 2018.
“There is no rancor,” says Djokovic, excluded from the tournament until now because of his refusal to get vaccinated against Covid-19. He is hopeful of winning his fourth crown in the tournament, which he has not won since 2018. “He never gives up,” says Alcaraz, the youngest seed in US Open history at 20 years and three months old. “It seems that in hard times he is down and that he is going to lose, but he always gives himself the opportunity to continue playing and is capable of winning... That’s what I’m trying to incorporate into my game,” he praises Nole, with whom he has solidified a new rivalry: they have met three times in the last three months. Paris and Cincinnati favored to the Serbian, Wimbledon went to the young king, who will debut on Tuesday against the German Dominik Koepfer.
A summer of curveballs
It’s the two of them, and a considerable distance from the others. If in England it was assumed that all roads led to another victorious showing from Djokovic, but who was overwhelmed in the final outcome, New York represents a two-horse race with an unpredictable solution. Each is as much the favorite as the other. The winner is impossible to predict. In any case, Alcaraz has continued to nurture that virtue that differentiates the chosen ones from the rest: winning without playing well. Neither in Montreal nor in Cincinnati did he shine, except for the final confrontation in the second set, but he is beginning to really master the trade. The more the bar is raised, the better he tends to respond.
“Actually, even if people don’t believe it, I get nervous too. Everyone has their own way of managing emotions and trying to be in perfect balance emotionally, mentally, and physically to perform at their best,” Djokovic points out. Among the rest of the competitors, there is no truly solid alternative. Jannik Sinner, Holger Rune, Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitsipas, or even Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev themselves tend to fade away when facing one of the two, Alcaraz and Djokovic. Both set the pace and provide a great melee that is still friendly, smooth, but with maximum friction.
So for the next two weeks, the scene is set for a royal dust-up in Queens.
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