The US Open could’ve fizzled out after Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal lost. Casual fans are conditioned to look for those four names when following a Grand Slam. While we weren’t watching for Williams’ pursuit of her 24th Slam, we were still watching for Serena. The men’s bracket was more of the same, with the most consequential plot centering around whether Nadal would add another buffer to his Grand Slam lead over Novak Djokovic.
Then, poof, it seemed like we were bereft of plot. Sure, Frances Tiafoe was a nice story, but his run was going to end before it reached the finals. Yet, as soon as people were going to lose interest and let their notifications tell them how this Slam played out, Tiafoe upset No. 9 Andrey Rublev, then his next opponent, Carlos Alcatraz, waged a tireless battle against Italian Jannik Sinner into early Thursday morning, and all of the sudden there was something new — at least I’m pretty sure that’s what that feeling was — to look forward to that didn’t revolve around GOATs or all-time records.
Tiafoe and Alcaraz’s five-setter didn’t compare to the show Sinner and Alcaraz put on Thursday, but considering how far each player was digging into their bag of resources, the shot-making and stamina deserved the many boisterous cheers that the American and Spaniard alike earned. Both performances merited a finals berth, but Alcaraz was the last one standing, at least before he crumpled to the ground in exhilaration and exhaustion after another five-set win, 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3.
For Tiafoe, it was a fairytale run that brought out celebrities, with Bradley Beal and, more notably, Michelle Obama in attendance. He set the men’s record for most tiebreakers won (a perfect 8-0) at a U.S. Open, taking the opening and fourth sets 7-6 to send the home-court crowd into a frenzy. He repeatedly ground his way out of holes in the fourth set, ceding a break, then winning it back, all while struggling to get his first serve in play.
He hit when he was supposed to hit, and stayed when he was supposed to stay, but the house was having none of it. To keep this blackjack analogy going, the following rally was like splitting aces, drawing an eight and a nine only to have the dealer hit 21 after five cards.
With Friday night’s victory, Alcatraz became the third player ever to win three-straight five-set matches at the U.S. Open. Sweden’s Stefan Edberg did it in 1992 on his way to his sixth career Grand Slam, and Andre Agassi made it to the finals on the back of three five-set wins before falling to Roger Federer in the 2005 final.
The caveat is neither of those guys was 19 years old. Alcatraz systematically wore down Tiafoe with athleticism and relentlessness, but he also feathered a few lob winners over the top when the 24-year-old came to the net. Of the two participants, the younger player was the more consistent server, hitting fewer aces (six to Tiafoe’s 15) but more first serves in play (70 percent compared with 47 percent).
Let’s not kid ourselves though, Alcaraz covered the court as only a teenager can. He’s played something like 14 hours of tennis in the past five days. On top of the stamina of a cross-country runner, the guy looks like a linebacker standing next to the competition, and smacks the ball as hard as Lawerence Taylor hit quarterbacks. His returns clocked in at more than 100 mph many, many times.
Deadspin writer Sam Fels called Alcaraz a love child of Nadal and Federer in Friday’s TMA, and one of the McEnroe bros evoked Novak Djokovic’s name after he set his feet and hit a beautiful passing shot in one fluid motion while running full speed the wrong way during the semifinal. If that’s what’s really going on here, and Alcaraz is the programmable dinosaur assassin that the Jurassic Park mad scientist created in a lab, holy shit are tennis fans spoiled. Already ranked No. 3 in the world, he’ll be the youngest men’s player to reach No. 1 if he can beat No. 5 Casper Ruud on Sunday.
Ruud will have a decided advantage in rest as his past three matches (eight hours and 56 minutes total) were 38 minutes shorter than Alcaraz’s past two (nine hours and 34 minutes). Part of me thinks that the 19-year-old can’t possibly have anything left in the tank, that even a teenager with rubber bones and endless energy has a limit. I’m going to find out for myself Sunday though because there’s no way I’m letting Twitter spoil this story.