Carlos, Novak And The ‘Lost’ Gen
Carlos Alcaraz, is set to become the youngest No.1 men’s seed at the US Open
There is once again the sense of occasion about the final Grand Slam of the year as also, the eager anticipation of resumption of a riveting duel that has captivated the world this year between Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz. Ironically on the flip side, there is a sense of an entire generation lost by the side lines, unless someone decides to script a different history to the one being widely presumed for the US Open in a fortnight.
Rafael Nadal continues to miss out on another Grand Slam as he recovers from a hip injury, and the only thing standing in the way of 36-year-old Novak Djokovic from extending his record of 23 Grand Slam men’s singles titles is apparently Carlos Alcaraz.
Alcaraz, at 20 years and 215 days of age, is set to become the youngest ever no.1 men’s seed at the US Open, a record that belonged to Australia’s Ashley Cooper back in 1957.
If there is a feeling that too much focus has been thrust on the two men on the opposing ends of the spectrum when it comes to age on court, it is because the duel between the two has outlasted and outlived much of the battles that have consumed the tennis courts this year.
If Novak Djokovic has a reputation for running his opponents ragged from side to side on court, there is no one who covers the court better or mixes up his game with thundering winners and deceptive drop shots than Carlos does. With both men willing to chase down balls most would consider lost on point, they have marked themselves a cut above the league and a challenge.
The Spaniard seemed to have been held back by nerves and cramps that curbed his progress at the French Open this year in his run in with the Serbian in the semi final on red clay. There was a clear case of exacting revenge when the 20-year-old kicked up a storm in a five set lung burst effort at the Wimbledon grass court final, that saw even the Serbian admitting that the youngster had closer ranks faster than anyone had anticipated.
The tennis world was deeply divided when it was revealed that Carlos Alcaraz had helped German’s Alexander Zverev at the Cincinnati Open to beat Daniil Medvedev who won his US Open in 2021. Not lost either was the fact that Djokovic is feeling the full weight of expectations of holding up his end of the bargain.
This was made tougher by the fact that the likes of Zverev, making a comeback from career-threatening injury and swiftly rising up the ranks again, could stretch him as the German did in a terse semi-final battle.
The fact that Carlos’ coach, former Spanish player, Juan Carlos Ferraro, reminded the youngster on court of the fact that Zverev had made Djokovic serve his own game to win the match, seemed like there was a clear case of mind games as much as on court strategy and player ability being used to stop the Serb from running away with history.
While the Cincinnati Open final did see another tough three-set battle between the two, ultimately it was Djokovic who prevailed, the relief telling as it was important perhaps for him to establish the ascendency ahead of the final Grand Slam, as he knows age, body and the sheer dynamism of Carlos are a real threat to his own longevity.
But while the focus is firmly on Novak as he goes for one of his least successful Grand Slam outings, appearing at the US Open after a string of unfortunate events and also, injury troubles, there is concern in the men’s sport that so much reverence is being paid to Carlos that a generation of aspirants might be left licking their wounds on the sidelines only because they might have built him up in their head, such as been the impact of the 20 year old Spaniard.
One of the hallmarks why both players dominate the headlines as they do even though there have been some outstanding performances from the likes of Jannik Sinner, Holger Rune and the slightly older generation in Casper Rudd and Andrey Rublev has been the question of consistency.
While these players are all formidable in their own right, they seem to fall short when it comes to consistency of results and temperament, a game Carlos has mastered rather quickly and more prominently since winning his first Grand Slam title at the US Open last year.
While Novak felt it was a case of opportunity missed for him last year, he is perhaps ruing the fact that Carlos has risen to the top of the field in such a short span of time. He has shown an insatiable appetite behind that boyish smile and has shown that the confidence is only growing about his ability to hold himself high in his field.
The fact that someone like Zverev, who has won gold at the last Olympics and who actually beat Carlos en route to facing Nadal at the French Open last year in 2022, expressed aloud, albeit jokingly, that there was a chance to beat Carlos but on a golf course is just one example that even players who were once thought of as serious Grand Slam potential, now have another bookend in the form of a much younger, more sprightly and certain more astute leader coming up.
It is being speculated once more that Novak has a relatively more facile Grand Slam draw compared to Carlos en route to a potential final match up. The rest of the pack are going to have to strive that much harder to make a case for themselves and bring themselves back into the reckoning rather than being viewed as merely potential obstacles on the path of the greats.
The fact that Carlos, like several other tennis stars, suffered an early unexpected defeat in Toronto prior to the Cincinnati Open, seemed to have barely left a scar as Djokovic was forced to even save a match point before he could win the tournament 5-7, 7-6 (9/7), 7-6 (7/4).
Djokovic had the highest praise for Carlos despite winning in Cincinnati. If he felt he was caught off guard and humbled by Carlos at Wimbledon, he felt he was seeing shades of his rival, Nadal, as Carlos reminded that they were both Spaniards and that Spaniards have a ‘never say die’ attitude.
If aura matters as much as attitude, then Carlos has clearly cast a spell around his peers, his position not diminished by recent losses though it would have bolstered Djokovic though he possibly now sees only one player as steel in stature to stand in his way.
It does not speak well of the rest of this illustrious group of tennis players who are beginning to feel the uncertainty about the realisation of their own Grand Slam victory dreams now snatched by a precocious twenty year old as by the reigning dominance of the top three over the past couple of decades.
There was concern that the retirement of Roger Federer on court and the absence of Nadal on court would deplete interests in the men’s game with Djokovic often dubbed the least popular of the three. Djokovic is quietly surging to make history post covid hurdles, Carlos’ rise has proved timely for tennis as it has proved deadly for some of the many potential Grand Slam winners waiting for him round after round in the lead to another potential history making moment should he manage to defend his title at Flushing Meadows, New York.