US Open: Alcaraz and Ruud out to rule

 - Alex Sharp

The US Open men’s singles title and world No. 1 ranking is the double prize on offer in this fitting 'winner takes all' finale.

Carlos Alcaraz / Demi-finales US Open 2022 ©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

For several seasons there has been incessant talk of life after the ultra-dominant ‘Big Three’ in the men’s game. How will the sport cope? Who can fill the void?

The 2022 US Open has illustrated that the future landscape is very promising. A first Grand Slam title on offer for both Carlos Alcaraz and Casper Ruud, the champion will also be crowned World No.1. It feels like that much discussed changing of the guard is finally truly in transition.

It’s the ultimate showdown.

“I think what's most fair is if we both reach the final and whoever wins the final reaches the world No. 1. That would be I think the ideal situation,” stated Ruud after toppling Karen Khachanov in four sets in a highly composed semi-final.

“If I go to bed as No. 1, I will sleep pretty damn well, I guess.”

Ruud was granted his wish, Alcaraz ending the feel-good run of Frances Tiafoe in another performance demonstrating why the 19-year-old is already a global household name.  

Alcaraz living childhood dreams

“I never played a guy who moves as well as him, honestly. How he's able to extend points, incredible,” reflected Tiafoe, following their pulsating five-set encounter.

“He's a hell of a player. He's going to be a problem for a very long time. For him to be so young, being so poised in big moments, I take my hat off and I got a lot of respect for him.”

Tiafoe echoes the sentiment of the rest of the lockeroom. What the Spanish sensation has achieved in the past couple of campaigns, launching from a qualifier all the way to title contender is miraculous.

Carlos Alcaraz / Quarts de finale US Open 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

However, It’s not been a smooth ride for Alcaraz’s fans this fortnight, the No.3 seed has had to find the answers in three consecutive five-set marathons over Marin Cilic, Jannik Sinner and then Tiafoe. That’s 13 hours and 28 minutes on court in just five days.

The relentless nature of the Grand Slam gauntlet is an arena Alcaraz simply thrives in.

“I would say now I'm more prepared,” stated the fast-learning Spaniard, a US Open quarter-finalist a year ago.

“Now I've played more matches in five sets, I am more prepared mentally and physically. It was 12 months of working hard in the gym, on the court. But I would say it's all mental.”

Should Alcaraz lift the trophy on Sunday night, he will become the youngest world No.1 in ATP history, displacing a 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt from 20 years ago.

Accolades and milestones bring a grin to Alcaraz’s face, but with a top-notch team, the 19-year-old is incredibly grounded. It’s 19 years since his coach Juan Carlos Ferrero reached the final at Flushing Meadows to then be hailed world No.1.

Can history repeat itself in Team Alcaraz?

“We talked a lot about it. He beat Agassi in the semi-finals to reach the No. 1 in the world here in the US Open. He told me about they prepare for that match,” added the teenage sensation. “I going to do the same, I just going for it and enjoy the moment.” 

Booking his maiden major final has the Murcia native looking back to his childhood.

Carlos Alcaraz / Demi-finales US Open 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“I'm just so, so happy. I thought about a young man like 10 years ago dreaming for this moment right now,” said Alcaraz, who would tell his younger self; “Follow his dream. If you work hard, it pays off. Right now, you can see that all the hard work I put every day is paying off right now.

“It's close. But at the same time is so far away. It's a final of a Grand Slam, fighting for the No.1 in the world, something that I dream since I was a kid.”

Alcaraz holds a 2-0 record over fellow finalist Ruud, the teenage prodigy edging the Miami Open title duel 7-5, 6-4 back in March. Since then the world No.7 has competed in a Roland-Garros final on a constant upward trajectory.

“I know him very well. We shared a lot of moments in the tournaments. Of course, he's a very nice guy off the court. I talk with him a lot, when we can,” continued Alcaraz. “I beat him twice. He's playing really, really well. I will have to show my best.”

Casper Ruud & Carlos Alcaraz / Miami 2022©Ray Giubilo / FFT

Ruud ready for one last leap

As for Ruud, he’s growing accustomed with making milestone moves for his homeland.

His father Christian, a former world No.39, has helped guide the Norwegian from junior world No.1 to lift titles, crack the Top 10, then Top 5 as a Roland-Garros finalist. All before he turned 23-years-old.

Why now? What has catapulted him to the precipice of world No.1?

“Nothing specific,” insisted the assured Norwegian. “When I saw Rafa, Roger on TV when I was young, I said that I want to be on TV someday myself, become world No. 1 and win Grand Slams.

Casper Ruud / Demi-finales US Open 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“I think that just inner motivation, knowing it's a very, very long road, has stuck with me every day. That ultimate goal and motivation has always driven me to be serious and to have the right mindset.

“I have also had help from a mental coach back in Norway who taught me from a young age that it's not necessarily on the court where the battle is, it's more in the everyday life. If you do the right things every day for weeks and months, you become little bit better than maybe the rest of your opponents.”

In terms of Grand Slams, Ruud set himself the 2022 goal to earn a quarter-final ticket. He’s smashed that in Paris then New York.

The current world No.7 bounced back from missing the Australian Open with an untimely twisted ankle to compile an impressive 44 match wins so far this campaign. He’s ultra-dedicated, ultra-consistent, but Roland-Garros provided something extra.

“During Paris, something clicked,” continued the Norwegian talisman. “I think I matured and learned how to play five sets better than I did last year.

“I hope it can have prepared me a little bit. At least I know a little bit what I'm facing when I'm stepping on the court, seeing the trophy on the back of the court, seeing tons of celebrities. Even in Roland-Garros, there was royal families there watching. That was a little bit new experience for me. I hope I can be more ready for that on Sunday.”

Alcaraz is the headline act, a player spinning around social media with his highlight reel tendencies. Ruud embodies resilience and will be prepared to the max.

“I think if I want to beat Carlos, I'll need to play very precise with all the shots that I hit, especially try to keep him a little bit further back in the court, to play with good depth and length on all my shots. If he steps in, he can do anything with the ball,” revealed Ruud.

“We're playing for the tournament and also world No.1. Of course, there will be nerves and we will both feel it. I hope it will be a good match. He has beaten me a couple times and I will seek my revenge.”