Timing Is Everything for Carlos Alcaraz

The U.S. Open victory party at Carlos Alcaraz’s Manhattan hotel wrapped up before 3 a.m. on Monday, which was early by his standards at this round-the-clock Grand Slam event.

“I got to bed at 5:15 a.m. after the Cilic match, and 6 a.m. after the Sinner match,” he explained rather wearily as he sat in the back seat of a sport utility vehicle, shifting his gaze from his interlocutor to the streetscape outside the tinted windows.

He was rolling toward Times Square for a rendezvous with his new trophy, and upon arrival, he stepped onto the sidewalk in his jeans and blue-and-white sneakers and was soon holding the silverware high with the photographers — professional and amateur — clicking away as a crowd began to gather.

“Numero uno!” shouted someone in Spanish.

Alcaraz took note, just as he had after waking up on Monday and looking at the updated ATP rankings on his phone.

“I had to be sure,” he said.

At 19, Alcaraz is the youngest No. 1 since the ATP rankings were created in 1973. That is quite a feat in a sport that has had plenty of prodigies: from Bjorn Borg to Mats Wilander, Boris Becker to Pete Sampras, to Alcaraz’s Spanish compatriot Rafael Nadal, who also won his first major at age 19 (at the 2005 French Open).

But Alcaraz’s meteoric rise to the top has not been due simply to his genius — though the word, which should be used very sparingly in tennis or anything else, does seem to apply in his acrobatic case.

His coronation is also due to timing:

To Novak Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated for Covid-19, which kept him out of this year’s Australian Open and U.S. Open and four Masters 1000 events in North America.

To Nadal’s limited schedule because of a series of injuries.

To the extraordinary situation at Wimbledon, which Djokovic won again in July but which earned him no ranking points; the tournament had been stripped of points by the men’s and women’s tours because of Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players over the war in Ukraine.

Alcaraz’s situation is radically different from the case of Nadal, who, as the longtime No. 2, had to chase Roger Federer for years before finally securing the top ranking.

Alcaraz has reached No. 1 before the end of his second full season on tour and after winning his first major title with a four-set victory over Casper Ruud on Sunday.

“Look, I don’t want to take credit away from myself,” Alcaraz said. “But it’s true that Rafa, Djokovic, Federer, they were in a period when they were all playing. I had the luck or whatever you want to call it that Djokovic could not play. Everybody has their reasons, but that is the reality. He could not play much for a while, and Rafa kept playing but not all year, either. But like I said, I don’t want to take credit away from myself. I have been playing all season, playing incredible matches and incredible tournaments, and I’ve worked really hard so that things like this could happen.”

In an interview before the season, Alcaraz was asked which major tournament he would most like to win. The U.S. Open was his answer.Credit…Kena Betancur/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the end of 2021, Alcaraz was considered one of the brightest young talents in the game and was ranked No. 32. Less than nine months later, he has won the Rio Open, Miami Open, Barcelona Open, Madrid Open and now his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open.

Along the way, he has beaten the old guard, defeating Nadal and Djokovic in Madrid, and the new wave, defeating 21-year-old Jannik Sinner, 24-year-old Frances Tiafoe and 23-year-old Ruud in New York.

Alcaraz’s latest duel with Sinner in the quarterfinals was the match of the tournament, played at close to full throttle for five sets in five hours and 15 minutes, with Alcaraz saving a match point in the fourth set.

It was also the latest-finishing match in U.S. Open history, wrapping up at 2:50 a.m., which is certainly notable but also a dubious honor even if the tournament presented him with a commemorative photo from that record-breaking match on Sunday.

Finishing at that hour (and going to sleep at 6 a.m.) is no way for an elite athlete to optimize performance or for a major sports event to maximize its reach even if tennis is a global sport and 2:50 a.m. in New York is prime time in certain parts of the world.

On the upside, this was the first time in U.S. Open history that all sessions in Arthur Ashe Stadium were sold out. That was due, in part, to the impact of Serena Williams’s announcement that the end of her career was imminent, which spiked interest in first-week tickets in Ashe Stadium.

But Stacey Allaster, the U.S. Open tournament director, said officials would certainly take another look at the night-session schedule before the 2023 Open.

But what is clear is that Alcaraz’s three consecutive late-night marathons did not keep him from the championship. He beat Marin Cilic, Sinner and Tiafoe in five sets before defeating Ruud, becoming the third man in the Open era to win a major after winning three consecutive five-setters. (Stefan Edberg did it at the 1992 U.S. Open, and Gustavo Kuerten did it at the 1997 French Open.)

Like the elegant Edberg’s and the elastic Kuerten’s, Alcaraz’s powers of recovery were astonishing, and for now at least plans to play Davis Cup for Spain later this week in Valencia after flying home.

In an interview with the Spanish publication El País, Juanjo Moreno, Alcaraz’s physiotherapist, said Alcaraz had a “good genetic predisposition that we have managed to bring to its maximum splendor.”

Moreno explained that the team paid close attention to Alcaraz’s hydration and energy replenishment during matches, which included the ingestion of caffeine, a legal supplement.

But Moreno said post-match recovery was the key: focusing on the use of a stationary bike, hot-and-cold contrast baths, massage and what he calls the “four Rs.” Those are “rehydration, replenishment of muscle glycogen, restoration of lost amino acids and recovery for the immune system.”

Quality sleep is also essential. “The other day, we helped him with a sleep supplement because we had given him a lot of caffeine,” Moreno told El País.

But Alcaraz said on Monday that other less-scientific factors were also in play.

“I’m 19 years old,” he said with a grin. “And I have worked a lot and very hard day to day on recovery, and I have a magnificent team.”

He offered his thanks

“But above all, it was going on the court with the adrenaline, the matches and everything,” he said. “You forget the pain. You forget the fatigue, and you push through.”

Alcaraz used the Spanish word “aguantar,” which his team kept shouting at him in New York from the players’ box.

“Of course, I felt soreness,” Alcaraz said. “After so many matches, it was so difficult, and things are bothering you, but you have to fight through it.”

He did so in often-spectacular style, displaying his phenomenal quickness and timing, his ability to adapt on the fly and his rare capacity to take big risks on big points that pay off.

“You forget the pain. You forget the fatigue, and you push through,” Alcaraz said.Credit…Julian Finney/Getty Images

It is quite a skill set, quite a fan-friendly package, and it made for a much happier ending in New York than in his first appearance in 2021 when, after an upset of Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round, he later had to retire with a leg injury against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second set of their quarterfinal.

“A year ago, I came here as a new guy, a kid who was experiencing everything for the first time, including Arthur Ashe Stadium,” Alcaraz said. “I think I was a player who could win against anyone but was not ready to have the physical, mental and tennis level for two full weeks.

“One year later, I have changed a lot. I feel I am ready to hold this level.”

The proof was there in Times Square on Monday as he held his trophy aloft, but, above all, the proof was there in Ashe Stadium night after late night as he held off rival after rival with the crowd of nearly 24,000 often making him feel like he was playing at home. (The Tiafoe match was an exception.)

“I think my town in Spain has about the same population as Arthur Ashe Stadium,” said Alcaraz, who comes from El Palmar, a suburb of Murcia. “I took a moment during the final and looked around and to see all those people and all those seats filled to the top row was incredible.”

During an interview before the season, Alcaraz was asked which major tournament he would most like to win. The U.S. Open was his answer.

Mission accomplished even if the love affair may be only beginning.

“I feel a special bond,” he said. “I think my game matches up with that court and what the people are looking for when they come. There’s energy. It’s dynamic, and I think they don’t know what I’m going to do next. I think that’s part of the connection.”

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