Determining a tennis player’s foot speed is not like timing an Olympic runner. A player’s race toward the ball tends to begin with a small jump in place, a split step, but the real speed at that moment is a matter of the eyes and the brain – trying to figure out, or guess, in the fraction of a second or so the opponent is aiming to hit their shot. This may result in a slight tilt in the direction of that spotted or guessed spot, and then, once the ball comes off the opponent’s racket, is the explosive first move. (Excellent players do any number of drills to develop this move.) Then, just before reaching the ball, unless he reaches it while running, the player does what are called adjusting steps, dancing the smallest steps to get the ball in the right shape. Distance from the ball – the distance that will enable him to comfortably extend his arm and bat and hit the ball, or chop it, with the nice point of the string bed. That’s a lot of movement, and there’s no stopwatch app to capture it all.
What is clear to game watchers is that players are getting faster. Novak Djokovic And the Rafael NadalIn their prime, they markedly changed the men’s game with their lateral speed, chasing sharp-angled balls that circled outside doubles alleys and would have been clean winners in an earlier era. In fact, they expanded the court. But to this observer, and not just this one, neither Djokovic nor Nadal, as fast as they were, could dash and dash as tirelessly as the nineteen-year-old Spanish phenomenon Carlos Alcaraz. “I’ve never played a man who moves like him,” Francis Tiafoe “It’s a thrilling five-set thriller,” he said, after losing to Alcaraz in the US Open semi-final Friday night. On Sunday afternoon, in the men’s US Open final, Alcaraz’s unrelenting fleet was one of the factors, perhaps The Factor, in his 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3 win over Norway’s Casper Ruud.
When you play Alcaraz, dealing with his speed seems to be part of your strategy. I asked Rudd about this at his post-final press conference. Rudd is twenty-three years old, elegant and straightforward, and spoke of how one tends, when thinking of a player’s main weapons, to think of serve and forehand. With Alkaraz there are legs. “It makes us other players feel like you need to draw the lines, sort of, to be able to hit a winner,” he said, “and sometimes that just isn’t enough. It’s so fast, so fast — it’s a great engine.”
But, as the final open match kicked off, it became clear that Alcaraz wasn’t racing into corners for balls at the easy pace he’s famously known for. And when he did manage to get the ball far, he wasn’t hitting it with the control and precision that could unload the opponent and bring the crowd to its feet. He was tired, or seemed to be struggling with it. He played three night matches of five straight sets to reach the final. One of those, Wednesday night’s quarter-final match against 21-year-old Italian Yannick Sener, didn’t end until 2:50 A.m Thursday morning – The last game of the US Open ever. (For players and fans alike, tournament officials need to rethink scheduling.) Alcaraz did not have recovery days between matches. He had hours.
However, he got the first set against Rod, using his legs to achieve the best effect not by moving horizontally along the baseline but by running forward toward the net. If you are tired, one way to shorten the points and conserve the energy you have is to come over. Alcaraz is in good hands for a young player like him – and one who plays in an era where network access is no longer the primary skill it once was, although that could change. He has the mobility and confidence of running through his air balls, not to mention textbook stops and squaring, allowing him to insert his body into the shot and drive it. In the third game of the first set, with Roode serving, Alcaraz hit a deep ball that slipped so low that Rod couldn’t swing on it. This raised the match to 0-40, after two points Alcaraz within the first half of the group.
Alkaraz continued to advance, after ground kicks hit short balls, and sometimes serve and shots. After the match I asked him why. “Because I was really nervous,” he said — that’s the tension because he couldn’t hold out with Rudd on long base rallies, given the nearly endless matches he’s been carrying. She was right about that. Rodd was winning the most long rallies, hitting corners with an excellent forehand in the top turn and stunned Alcaraz with a backhand redirected down the line. In the second set, Rudd also started to get Alcaraz’s falling shots, another ploy to finish points faster. And the Alcaraz service also gave up on him at the crucial moments in the second set. Rod broke it twice and up to the match.
It was the twelfth game of the third set – a long, drawn-out match punctuated by daring shots and a responsive roar from a crowd on its feet – that decided the match. Alcaraz was serving at the age of 5-6. Rudd crushed the winner with a forehand kick down the line to earn a set point, but Alcaraz survived the winner with a shot. When Alcaraz advanced again, during the next point, Rudd managed a perfectly positioned pass, and earned another set point. Once again, in the ensuing point, Alcaraz took off and Rod denied the break. In the end, Alcaraz won the match with an overhead shot, winning the next tiebreak in defeat. Rudd’s body language is now the language of a player who can’t find a way. The Alcaraz who came onto the court for the fourth set had the energy that confidence can instill. He hit the ground with powerful, deep blows, and his serve rarely looked better. He served at 5-3, hitting two aces, and then, at 40-30, making a serve that Rudd couldn’t get back into play. The evangelist collapsed back onto the court, rolled over, and cried. He outdid the last opponent who had to hold out.
No teenager in the men’s game has won a major tournament since Nadal won the 2005 French Open. No teenager in the men’s game has won the US Open since Pete Sampras in 1990. Alcaraz’s win earned him 2,000 ranking points, which moved him to No. 1 in the the scientist. No teenager in the men’s game has been ranked number one since the computerized ranking system was put in place, in 1973. Those who followed tennis were sure that Alcaraz would one day be a Grand Slam champion. It arrived one day a little sooner than expected.
No doubt someone pointed out that Alcaraz’s remarkable rise came in a year when he was Djokovic is stubbornly unprotected He was not allowed to play in Australia or the United States – and when the two thousand points that Djokovic would normally have for winning Wimbledon were not awarded, because the ATP, which oversees men’s tennis, Stripped that tournament From the ranking points in protest of her exclusion Russian and Belarusian players. (The WTA, which oversees the women’s game, did the same.) One of the responses to these notes is the note of Alcaraz’s victory over Djokovic in Madrid, in May, after his victory over Nadal. Moreover, a group of young players with exciting games and winning characters appeared on the field. Men’s tennis will continue without the Big Three, Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer. And these young players – among them Ruud, Sener and Tiafoe – will chase Carlos Alcaraz. ♦