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The Changing of the Guard

This year’s US Open showed the world that tennis’s next generation is here

By Eric Wills | September 15, 2022
Iga Świątek at the 2019 Prague Open (Wikimedia Commons)
Iga Świątek at the 2019 Prague Open (Wikimedia Commons)

At the height of their reign, great empires can seem invincible, destined to endure for the ages. But over time, their grasp on power inevitably begins to weaken–some wounds self-inflicted, others delivered by aspiring rulers lurking in the shadows. One day, sensing vulnerability, the upstarts incite a rebellion—a wall topples, a king is beheaded—and suddenly a new era is upon us, one we could have scarcely envisioned in the months or years prior.

On Sunday evening, when Carlos Alcaraz hoisted the US Open trophy, his four-set victory over Casper Ruud marked a generational shift, one that reshaped the balance of power in men’s tennis. Not only did Alcaraz, a 19-year-old Spaniard, win his first Grand Slam title; he also became the youngest men’s number one in the world since the ATP rankings began in 1973. For almost two decades, the Big Three—Roger, Rafa, and Novak (no last names necessary)—have ruled over the men’s game with an iron grip; countless contenders have been left wanting. But in Alcaraz we finally have a transcendent next-generation talent. Never mind his remarkable court coverage and flexibility, the penetrating forehand, the surprising aggression at net, or the fact that he’s a delight to watch; more important, he handles pressure like a surgeon, the resilience and endurance he exhibited during the two weeks of the Open like something out of The Revenant.

In his seven matches he spent the cumulative total of nearly one full day on court, with back-to-back-to-back five setters before the final. Against Ruud, after splitting the first two sets, he faced two set points in the third, and I thought surely he would succumb to the mounting physical and mental fatigue. Instead, he held serve and then dominated the ensuing tiebreak in a reversal that was as surprising as it was sudden. John McEnroe, not one to bloviate, dubbed it a “superhuman” performance.

Critics will argue that Alcaraz’s number-one ranking deserves an asterisk, that he benefited from Djokovic’s misfortune. Djokovic won Wimbledon this summer, but he did not earn a single ranking point for his victory; that’s because the ATP stripped the tournament of points, due to its decision to ban players from Russia and Belarus as a way to protest the war in Ukraine. But remember: Djokovic also sacrificed any chance of upstaging Alcaraz at the Open because of his long-standing refusal to get the Covid vaccine, which prevented his entry into the United States (he was similarly banned from the Australian Open earlier this year). Alcaraz clearly has the game to beat Djokovic—he won a thrilling semifinal against the Serb at the Madrid Open in May—and I can’t see any reason to hold Djokovic’s campaign for “body autonomy” against the Spaniard, who showed up and delivered when it counted.

In New York, Alcaraz was not the only harbinger of the sport’s shifting tides. The United States, once blessed with an enviable roster of talent on the men’s side—Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Andy Roddick—has for the past decade or so endured an inexplicable drought. Francis Tiafoe, 24, has emerged as one of our most promising prospects. The son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, he grew up playing at a tennis center in College Park, Maryland, where his father was a maintenance worker.

In the fourth round of the Open, he upset Rafa Nadal, who was returning from an abdominal tear he suffered at Wimbledon. And in the semis against Alcaraz—becoming the first American to make it that far since Roddick in 2006—Tiafoe willed himself back from a break down in the fourth set to force a fifth, the crowd erupting in boozy euphoria, before his engine finally hit empty. In tears during his post-match interview, after praising Alcaraz, Tiafoe vowed to return and win—a classy display of sportsmanship and desire that left me hoping that he makes good on his promise.

Let us also not forget the Australian Nick Kyrgios, who made his first slam final earlier this summer, when he lost to Djokovic at Wimbledon. At 27, Krygios remains the biggest enigma in the game today, perhaps in the history of the sport. He can be equal parts brilliant and infuriating, a petty tyrant who channels the worst of notorious bad boys like Ilie Năstase and Jimmy Connors (allegedly in his private life as well: Kyrgios faces an October court date over charges he assaulted his ex-girlfriend). A fan of the NBA—his Open attire included a basketball-style jersey worn over a T-shirt—Kyrgios has long seemed conflicted about his talent, incapable or unwilling to dedicate himself to reaching the pinnacle of the game. His antics suggest a man with psychological burdens so deeply ingrained and all-encompassing that even a distinguished panel of therapists would be powerless to unravel them.

And yet, as evidenced by his run at Wimbledon, he has started to put in the work; he has made himself vulnerable to disappointment. In his near-constant berating of the members of his box, he has found, I think, a workaround, a way of absolving himself of responsibility when things go badly. In the fourth round of the Open, he looked like a potential champion in dispatching the Russian Daniil Medvedev, the number one seed. But in the quarterfinals against Karen Khachanov, he complained of intense calf pain, so bad that he claimed he could barely walk, and after a medical timeout, he sulked around the court, at one point apparently intent on withdrawing. By the time he had forced a fifth set, however, the limp had appeared to vanish magically. Was he legitimately hurt, or was he engaging in some form of gamesmanship? After his loss, Krygios mounted an exhibition of racket-breaking that would have given a vintage-era McEnroe pause, and we’re left wondering if his recent revival, his newfound commitment, will continue.

On the women’s side, the leading story of the Open, at least during the first week, was much the same: regime change. Although the transfer of power was more symbolic than actual. Serena Williams hasn’t won a major since 2017, but her influential imprint on the sport—her aggressive athleticism—is still much in evidence. Because this is 2022, and because Serena is a global brand, her announcement just prior to the tournament that she was “evolving” away from tennis didn’t break in the sports pages but in Vogue, where in her own words she explained her decision to spend more time with her family and in the service of her venture capital firm. This wasn’t a past-his-prime Willie Mays booting balls in the outfield; Serena can still play. In the third round she forced a third set against the Australian Ajla Tomljanović, before her lack of match fitness brought about a summary end.

Instead, another young phenom, the 21-year-old Pole Iga Świątek, displayed her own superhuman poise in dispatching Ons Jabeur to win the title and collect her third major. She’s part of a young generation of players—Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Emma Raducanu, Elena Rybakina—who have achieved major success following Serena’s last slam. Barty, however, retired earlier this year at the age of 25; Raducanu, 19, lost in the first round of the Open while defending her title from last year; and Osaka also lost in the first round and has dropped to 48 in the rankings. The women’s game feels wide open, and one wonders who might break through next: Americans will hope it is Coco Gauff, 18, who lost in the Open quarterfinals.

A similar sense of possibility pervades the men’s game. In the quarters, Alcaraz endured a five-set battle with the 21-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner, another precocious talent who made the quarters in all but one major this year. Ruud, meanwhile, a 23-year-old Norwegian, also made the finals in this year’s French Open, falling to Nadal. If Alcaraz and Sinner and Ruud continue their ascent; if the Kyrgios revival endures; if Nadal fully recovers and Djokovic’s vaccine issue fades away next year—just imagine the possibilities.

As empires start to fade, a sense of malaise, of propping up old glories, can infect the collective psyche. But with new leadership, a new regime, the gaze can once again turn forward, to the promise of future greatness. For tennis fans, that future can’t come soon enough.

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