US Open 2022: First Major title and No1 ranking beckon finalists Alcaraz and Ruud

Age just 19 and 23 respectively, the two contrasting players have battled to history-making finale

Casper Ruud
Casper Ruud (Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky / depositphotos.com)

Two weeks ago, five men entered the US Open draw with the chance to rise to No1 by the end of the tournament.

Two of them, the top seeds, No1 Daniil Medvedev and No2 Rafael Nadal, had been champions already, No1s already. And should they come through their designated draws to meet in the final, it would take on enormous significance: The same two men had already contested two Major finals, with both matches going to five sets, both wins to Nadal, at the US Open in 2019, and only eight months ago at the Australian Open.

The winner would take the US Open title and the No1 ranking, and carry aloft the banner either for the ‘old guard’—Nadal age 36 and with 22 Majors—or the ‘new age’—Medvedev exactly a decade younger and able to become the youngest man to win multiple Major titles since Andy Murray, also age 26, in 2013.

It was a mouth-watering prospect, but the hopes of such a climax evaporated in the fourth round, where both men lost. Nadal, however, would still reclaim the No1 ranking if the other contenders fell short of the final.

One of them, No4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, was never in the hunt after his first-round exit. But the other two, No3 Carlos Alcaraz and No5 Casper Ruud, were still in the draw, and also on opposite sides.

So instead of the battle between Medvedev and Nadal for title and top ranking, it could be a battle between 19-year-old Alcaraz and 23-year-old Ruud for title and top ranking.

Even before the start of the tournament, the ground-breaking teenager, who arguable began his surge to the top at this very tournament a year ago when he reached his first Major quarter-final, was being touted as a possible title contender. He had, after all, won two Masters and two 500 titles this year, plus two more clay titles. And prior to winning Miami, he also made a hard-court splash with a semi run at Indian Wells.

Carlos Alcaraz

Carlos Alcaraz (Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky / depositphotos.com)

Alcaraz had now reached the fourth round without dropping a set. Meanwhile, Ruud, who he beat in the final in Miami, had notched up his first Major final at Roland Garros and made at least the semis of five different Masters events, including Montreal just weeks before the US Open.

Out of 13 finals, the Norwegian had won eight titles on clay and one on hard courts, but was clearly spreading his wings on the North American hard surfaces. He had won just three matches in four previous visits to the US Open, and he had needed a tough five-setter to reach his first fourth round this year.

But since then, Ruud had made the easier progress of the two young men towards their that highly-anticipated final, culminating in a ruthless, clean, high-paced match against Karen Khachanov, 7-6(5), 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.

In contrast, Alcaraz went on to survive three five-setters back-to-back, twice finishing deep into the early hours of the New York night. But his powers of recovery, his athleticism and speed, his passion and focus had lifted him to remarkable heights—and to a place at the ATP Finals—against Jannik Sinner, and then against home favourite Frances Tiafoe, 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-3.

It also took him to a tour-leading 50 match-wins, compared with 44 by Ruud, and one of those matches was the teenager’s victory in their only previous meeting this year, in that Miami Masters final. But working against the young Spaniard this time were those late and extended last three matches, totalling 13 hours, 38 minutes.

So while, over the course of the tournament, they were separated by fewer than two hours on court, perhaps the momentum had turned slightly in favour of Ruud as his hard-court play has grown more confident, his tactics more penetrating, his clay-court strengths supplemented by his fast-evolving all-court nous.

One other element, however, could become the determining factor: nerves.

The moment for both will be huge—a first Major title, and the No1 ranking—and in a setting like no other: the biggest court, biggest crowd, biggest razzmatazz in tennis.

Alcaraz could become the youngest ever No1, Ruud the first ever No1 Norwegian. For even the most resilient and experienced, it would be enough to send the heart-rate into overdrive.

But one of them is guaranteed to emerge as victor, and with their own piece of tennis history.

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