For those who follow tennis closely, Carlos Alcaraz has been a “when, not if” name. The word coming out of Spain, where he has trained at former French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero’s academy since age 15, was that stardom would not be too far away.
Now it’s here.
The 18-year old Alcaraz, who entered the U.S. Open ranked No. 55 in the world, introduced himself in a major way Friday by knocking out No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in a four-hour, seven-minute epic. It ended in the fifth-set tiebreak when Alcaraz pelted his 61st winner of the match: An inside-out forehand that Tsitsipas had no chance to get his racquet on to finish off a 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 0-6, 7-6 win.
“His ball speed was incredible,” Tsitsipas said. “I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball so hard.”
Alcaraz advances now to the round of 16, where he’ll be favored against qualifier Peter Gojowczyk, the world’s 141st-ranked player who has made his own longshot run through the draw.
But the story isn’t just Alcaraz breaking through into the second week at a major. That was always going to happen at some point. The bigger picture here was Alcaraz injecting a shot of star quality into the sport, a flair for the big stage that will surely remind many fans of another Spaniard who has won the U.S. Open four times.
Of course, comparing any 18-year-old to Rafael Nadal is inherently unfair. And stylistically, Alcaraz does not fly around the court like he modeled his game after Nadal. In fact, he said after the match his style was more similar to Roger Federer. But where it’s easy to see the connection to his countryman is the relentlessness of Alcaraz’s attack, his fist-pumping flair and the ability to raise his level in the big moment.
And the New York fans absolutely loved him for it.
“The crowd was behind me, pushing me up in every moment,” Alcaraz said. “It surprised me.”
The palpable buzz around Arthur Ashe Stadium began when Alcaraz got off to a fast start, but it truly started to build to a crescendo when he came from two breaks of serve down in the third set to pull even and then win the tiebreak with a combination of roped backhands that seemed to kiss every line and deft drop shots that vexed his opponent.
The fans jumping on board the Alcaraz bandwagon also probably had something to do with Tsitsipas, who took something of a heel turn at this tournament with a series of long, eight-minute bathroom breaks after sets during his first two matches.
Other players began calling Tsitsipas out on the tactic — which isn’t against the rules but is widely viewed as unsportsmanlike — and it became one of the big topics of the U.S. Open. Former champion Andy Murray, who lost to Tsitsipas in the first round, was extremely vocal about it during the match, after the match and the next day on Twitter.
That was enough to turn the crowds against him, and Tsitsipas was booed when he left the court after the third set — though this time, he managed to cut the time it took him to change clothes to around three minutes.
At that point in the match, it looked like Tsitsipas was going to take control and that perhaps Alcaraz had already fired his best shot. Tsitsipas easily ran away with the fourth set to level the match, but Alcaraz came into the decider with a different approach.
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Showing zero fear of his opponent, the venue or the moment, Alcaraz just started firing at the ball, hitting even harder than he had before. And then after holding serve at love to force a tiebreak, he managed to win the tiebreak with five clean winners in a spectacular show of power and precision.
“I’ve never seen someone play such a good fifth set, honestly,” Tsitsipas said.
And when it was over, Alcaraz had put his name in some pretty elite company, becoming the youngest player to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam since Andrei Medvedev at the 1992 French Open and the youngest at the U.S. Open since 1989 when Michael Chang and Pete Sampras did it. He also surpassed Sampras and Andre Agassi to become the youngest player to beat a top-three opponent at the U.S. Open since 1973.
Still, for all the hype around Alcaraz, this was a legitimate surprise. Though he won his maiden ATP title in July on clay in Umag, Croatia, and has steadily progressed up the rankings, his résumé has not been filled with wins over top players. Just last week, Alcaraz’s game fell apart in the semifinals of the Winston-Salem Open against 90th-ranked Mikael Ymer.
That’s a long trip from there to the biggest tennis court in the world against one of the favorites for the title. But now that Alcaraz has successfully made that leap, get used to seeing him on the big stage. What he did Friday was only the beginning.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken