In August 2021, my wife and I took my parents to the U.S. Open, as we do every year. While we took our seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium, I apologized to them because it appeared we were going to see a series of dud matches. In particular, I was disappointed that Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of my favorite players, was playing some teenager from Spain ranked outside of the top 50, and was obviously going to devour this kid like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park going after Donald Gennaro. Like many of my tennis predictions, this turned out to be hilariously wrong. That kid was Carlos Alcaraz, and by the end of the first set, which he won 6–3, the crowd was on his side.* Tsitsipas won the second, and Alcaraz the third in a thrilling tiebreaker, and then suddenly everything appeared to fall apart as Tsitsipas dominated the fourth set, winning it 6–0. The writing was on the wall, the fat lady was singing, and the T-Rex was readying his knife and fork, but Alcaraz appeared not to care. Over the course of a gutsy fifth set, Alcaraz found his best tennis when it counted, and won the match in a stunning tiebreak, cracking winners, playing drop shot/passing shot combos, and flying around the court as if he hadn’t been playing for four hours.
Alcaraz’s victory over Tsitsipas was a statement of intent, but he was not quite ready to break out into the upper echelon of the sport. His U.S. Open run ended a few days later when, totally gassed and claiming injury, he retired in the second set of his quarterfinal against fellow youngster Felix Auger-Aliassime. While some grumbled that perhaps Alcaraz was going to be another teenaged flash in the pan who did not actually have what it takes, tennis commentators were united in their belief that if we just waited a year or two, we would all see that he has the goods to be one of tennis’s great champions.
It turns out they were wrong. Alcaraz only needed seven months.
Carlos Alcaraz Garfia—Carlito to his friends—is the most exciting new player in men’s tennis since his countryman Rafael Nadal launched his rivalry against Roger Federer in 2004. Like Nadal, Alcaraz graduated to the big leagues at the Miami Masters. Unlike Nadal, he won the tournament, taking out quality opponents (Caspar Ruud, Hubert Hurkacz), a Grand Slam champion (Marin Cilic), and poor Stefanos Tsitsipas to hoist the trophy on April 3. This past week, in Madrid, Alcaraz did even better, becoming the only player ever to beat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the same clay court event, and totally dominating world No. 3 Alexander Zverev in the final for good measure. But even that is underselling what Alcaraz achieved this week. Not only did he beat the top three players in the world on consecutive days; Nadal and Djokovic are the greatest clay court players alive, and his victories over Djokovic and Zverev came after sustaining a bad fall and ankle injury against Nadal.
How did he do it? On some level, the answer is easy: He’s just that good. Since his victory against Tsitsipas last year, Alcaraz has matured on and off the court, packing on muscle mass and carrying himself like a guy who knows he can win. And why shouldn’t he? Unlike many of the other top players, he appears to have no weaknesses.1 Alcaraz, an offensive baseliner with all-court flair, can hit equally well off his forehand and backhand side. On the forehand, he has Federer-like variety and accuracy, able to flatten shots out to increase pace and power, or hit with top spin to push his opponents back. Against Djokovic, he even threw in defensive lobs when necessary to buy himself time. He can hit his two-handed backhand down the line with ease, and his flat cross court shots are as tough to chase down as they are beautiful. He’s incredibly fast, able to switch to a defensive pose when necessary and then scoot up to the baseline to put pressure on his opponents or teleport up to the net to close out a point. He’s barely 6 feet tall, yet he has cracked first serves over 130 miles per hour, and his second serve—a heavy, high-bouncing kick shot— is already one of the best on the men’s tour.
And then there’s his secret weapon: the drop shot, a trick shot where the player hits the ball with such feather-light grace that it falls just over the other side of the net and promptly dies. As it’s slower than a regular shot, the dropper only works if it is well disguised, or if the opponent is so far away from it that they have no hope of chasing it down, so most players are judicious in their use of it. But no one has a drop shot like Alcaraz’s. Not only can he hit it off of either a forehand or backhand, which is rare; he can hit it without changing the grip on his racket, which means there’s no tell for the opponent to read. As a result, he’s far braver with his drop shot and will use it at unexpected times. This creates a never-ending dilemma for his opponents. If they hug the baseline to give themselves a head start to the net, he can blow them away with his easy power and sharp angles. If they back up to absorb the power, they leave themselves open to the dropper. This deprives his baselining opponents of the thing they love most: steady rhythm. In his final game against Nadal, Alcaraz won three of the four points necessary to seal his victory with drop-shots; by the third, all Nadal could do is shake his head. Against Zverev, Alcaraz hit six droppers, and won the point all six times.
The drop shot is also emblematic of another aspect of Alcaraz’s game that has endeared him to crowds and goes deeper than technique: The kid has guts, and his game is the exact right balance between deadly and crowd-pleasing. There are plenty of great players out there with flash, but few can consistently come up with their best (and best looking) tennis when they need it most, nor do they always have the wherewithal to work a point until the ideal opening presents itself. In the opening point of his final tiebreaker against Djokovic—the moment when many players would succumb to nerves and overplay, trying to hit winners off of anything—Alcaraz instead patiently deployed his defensive skills, waiting until the perfect ball to switch to offense. When, 15 shots into the rally, he finally got it, Alcaraz took what had until that moment been a cross-court exchange and shot a hard backhand down the line. Djokovic scrambled to receive it, sending a ball high that Alcaraz raced up to hit in midair for a winner. This ineffable mixture of reserve and bombast is the special quality he shares with the Big Three of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, and the reason he is already being talked about as if he could join their ranks by the time he retires. Unlike the stoic Federer, the villainous Djokovic, and the obsessive workaholic Nadal, Alcaraz also seems like he’s having a good time. Crowds love Alcaraz because he takes a boyish glee in the sport while playing it like a man, and because he appears to be getting better literally day by day.
Prior to Alcaraz, the conventional wisdom was that the age of the teenage champion had come and gone for men’s tennis. Nadal was the last man to win a Slam as a teenager, and in the intervening years, in part thanks to Nadal, the game had gotten too mentally and physically grueling for teenagers to truly excel at it. Outside of Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer, very few men have won Slams in the past decade, and all of them have been at least in their mid-20s when they did it. We have never lived through an age of men’s tennis like the one we are currently in, one where the best men’s players ever to pick up a racket might play into their early 40s, extending a dominance that has now stretched for almost 20 years. Several whole generations of men’s players have come and gone, while commentators and fans alike have looked for whatever would come next as the Big Three inevitably lost their fight against that greatest opponent of all, father time. Now, we may be about to find out. While besting Nadal on clay or Djokovic on hard courts over five sets is a near-impossible task, over the course of the past few months, it’s become clear that Alcaraz is among the handful of players who could actually do it. Whether Alcaraz will win a Slam this year or not is anyone’s guess, but the future of tennis has finally arrived in a player who combines flash, grit, guts, and grace, and has already pulled off the seemingly impossible this year.
1. Of the players who have the game to win slams, Zverev has one of the worst second serves on tour, Tsitsipas has mental discipline issues, Daniil Medvedev can be too passive and struggles when not on hard court, Felix Auger Aliassime has a forehand that can go wobbly on big points, and Dominic Thiem may never make it back to peak form after a wrist injury sidelined him for more than a year.
Correction, May 10, 2022: This article originally misstated which 2021 U.S. Open set between Alcaraz and Tsitsipas went to a tiebreaker.