NEW YORK — In all the times he was asked over the past few days about the possibility of taking the No. 1 world ranking, the teenager responded with a version of the same thing: He could feel it at his fingertips, as if it had a physical shape, but at the same time it felt so far away.
Carlos Alcaraz reached out and grabbed what he had dreamed of for more than half his life Sunday at the U.S. Open, defeating Casper Ruud, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7-1), 6-3, to capture his first Grand Slam title and the top spot in the world. On Monday, the 19-year-old from Spain will become the first teenage No. 1 since the ATP began its ranking system in 1973.
His preternatural talent places him among some of his sport’s brightest stars: Alcaraz is the youngest winner of a Grand Slam since his countryman Rafael Nadal claimed the first of his 14 French Open titles in 2005, also at 19. He also joins Pete Sampras, another 19-year-old when he did it in 1990, as the only teenagers to win the U.S. Open men’s singles title in the Open era.
But in a final that capped a thrilling two-week run, Alcaraz showed the world a game all his own. He began to believe winning Grand Slam trophies and standing atop the rankings was a possibility after he won a Masters 1000-level tournament in Miami in April — also over Ruud.
Five months later, he fell flat on his back with his limbs spread wide after hitting a service winner to claim the title, covering his face and rolling on his stomach.
“It’s crazy for me. I’ve never thought that I was going to achieve something like that at 19 years old. So everything came so fast,” Alcaraz said. “For me it’s unbelievable. It’s something I dream since I was a kid, since I start playing tennis.”
Alcaraz had won three breathtaking five-set matches in a row to reach the final, and his last stand, though shorter, was just as gripping. He hit 55 winners thanks to top-tier fitness and a never-say-die mentality, pairing with Ruud to construct rallies that lifted the capacity crowd of 23,859 at Arthur Ashe Stadium to its feet.
“Now is not the time to be tired,” Alcaraz said.
Ruud, 23, will take the No. 2 spot in the world, a fitting conclusion to a U.S. Open that doubled as a good, long look at the future.
It was the second Grand Slam of the year that Novak Djokovic, 35, could not contest because of regulations prohibiting the unvaccinated from entering the host country; he also missed the Australian Open in January but rebounded by winning Wimbledon.
Rafael Nadal, 36, won the first two majors of the year before an abdominal tear forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon and hampered him here, where he lost in the round of 16 to American Frances Tiafoe. Roger Federer, 41, did not play a major all year.
Their absences (or early exits) left a Grand Slam for the taking, but it did not decrease the quality of the matches. Alcaraz enthralled the crowds with late-night blockbusters that showcased some of the best shot-making there is to see on tour.
He’s at his best under pressure, using unparalleled movement and impeccable timing to hijack would-be winners into clips for his own highlight reel. In his quarterfinal against Italy’s Jannik Sinner, he hit a behind-the-back shot midair at the baseline and won the point. He triumphed in a 21-shot rally at the start of the fourth set Sunday.
“It makes us other players feel like you need to paint the lines sort of to be able to hit a winner,” Ruud said. “Sometimes even that’s not enough. ... Yeah, he’s a tough nut to crack.”
Alcaraz entered the view of mainstream audiences at the perfect time. His game feels futuristic, but his relentlessness — and those fist-pumping, Nadal-esque bellows of “¡Vamos!” — is classic.
Ruud felt like the underdog perhaps more than was deserved. The No. 5 seed was a revelation in his own right as the first Norwegian man to reach a U.S. Open singles final.
Ruud’s father, Christian, is a former pro from the 1990s who held the record as the highest-ranked Norwegian at No. 39 — until his son came along. Ruud was seventh entering New York after reaching a career-high fifth in June.
He navigated a diverse set of opponents in Flushing Meadows with a stunning forehand. Ruud hits with a healthy dose of topspin that makes his game particularly suited to clay, where he first made waves at Grand Slams. He lost his first major final to Nadal at this year’s French Open.
“I guess I hope I don’t play a Spanish player if I ever reach another Slam final,” Rudd said, smiling.
The crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium was decidedly in Alcaraz’s corner from the start. He got the fans out of their seats in the third game with spectacular hitting and an early break of serve; chants of “¡Olé, olé olé olé!” broke out between points. Between the crowd noise and the celebrities in attendance — actress Anne Hathaway, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, NBA star Devin Booker and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, a big-match stalwart — it felt like an anointing.
Alcaraz took ownership of the favorable atmosphere in the third set, waving his palms to ask the crowd to get louder and pointing to the court while shouting “¡Vamos!” after fighting off two set points to force a tiebreaker, which he won.
“Couldn’t get those set points out of my head,” Ruud said.
One key for Ruud in taking the second set and keeping up in the third was his return game. Alcaraz steps into the court on his groundstrokes and likes to take the ball early to disrupt his opponent’s timing; his precision makes him dangerous from the baseline. Ruud had done well to push Alcaraz deep into the court — until the end of the third set, when Alcaraz saved both set points with volleys, showing a deft hand and an all-court game. Alcaraz won 34 of 45 net points during the match.
Ruud’s return game faltered again in the third-set tiebreaker, and Alcaraz took control. All he needed was one break of serve to cruise to the trophy, which he was awarded along with a commemorative plaque for the latest finish ever at the U.S. Open — his quarterfinal with Sinner ended at 2:50 a.m.
Those were symbols of greatness he could touch.
“Right now I’m enjoying the moment,” he said when asked what’s next. “I’m enjoying have the trophy in my hands. But, of course, I’m hungry for more.”