By Matt Zemek
Be honest, folks: How many of you felt Carlos Alcaraz was likely to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas after eating a fourth-set bagel on Friday afternoon inside Arthur Ashe Stadium? I know it didn’t.
Tsitsipas obviously wasn’t going to win this U.S. Open. He obviously wasn’t a serious threat at this particular tournament. He was emotionally flat, distracted, bothered, playing with a cluttered mind. He was not in the right head space. Yet, he found his way past Andy Murray in the first round. He dominated the fourth set of that match and then took charge in the fifth. Against a player nearly half as old as Murray, Tsitsipas authored a similar story in the fourth set. Why was the fifth set going to be any different?
Tsitsipas was going to lose at some point in this tournament, but against an 18-year-old opponent who was so new to this kind of moment, this kind of experience, he probably figured to survive a little while longer. It wasn’t going to prove that Stef was ready to compete for a championship, but it WAS going to affirm the value of having been through a large number of situations, which pays off for players against opponents who haven’t accumulated a remotely similar body of real-life encounters, which is the only way athletes grow.
Tsitsipas can offer a personal testimony about the truth of this specific point. He couldn’t have reached the Roland Garros final with a five-set win over Alexander Zverev in the semifinals if he hadn’t previously lost to Novak Djokovic in five sets in Paris last October, or if he hadn’t beaten Rafael Nadal in five sets at the Australian Open, or if he hadn’t lost to Stan Wawrinka in five sets at Roland Garros a few years ago. Tsitsipas learned so much about carrying his body and mind through difficult, prolonged ordeals in each of those matches. Players don’t immediately figure out how to cope under stress – not normally. They have to endure the hardships (plural) first, and soak up the sensations over the course of a few years. They eventually arrive at a point where the feelings and frustrations – all the parts of the cauldron of elite competition – become second nature and are no longer foreign. Athletes remain human beings and therefore vulnerable to voices in the head or negative moods, but those encounters with negativity don’t ambush or surprise the way they once did.
Even for a struggling player such as Tsitsipas, that figured to be a significant advantage heading into the fifth set against Alcaraz, who is – not as a man but as a professional – a grade-school student just beginning to learn what life is like. Tsitsipas was not ready to beat any elite players in New York, but he could scrape by a teenager who lacked the formative walk-over-the-coals moments players generally need to suffer through before they learn how to win four-hour matchups against credentialed opponents at majors.
As shaky as Tsitsipas was, Alcaraz didn’t need to learn a lesson the hard way on Friday. He was able to adjust in the heat of the moment, process the whirl of circumstances surrounding him, and flush the clutter out of his mind. He put a (smartly) tanked 6-0 fourth set behind him. He successfully hit the reset button in the fifth, playing with renewed conviction and aggression. Finally, and most importantly, he held his nerve in a final-set tiebreaker, the pressure cooker when everyone in the building expects the veteran player ranked in the top five to withstand pulse-pounding anxiety better than the young pup.
It’s true that Stefanos Tsitsipas is – mentally – a mess, partly for reasons of his own making, partly due to an excess of (justified but wildly overdone) criticism, and mostly because tennis refuses to address longstanding problems and points of ambiguity in its rule and policy structure. Tsitsipas didn’t have to allow this firestorm of negative publicity to get to him, but the firestorm of negative attention was overplayed. No one likes Tsitsipas’s extended bathroom breaks or the overcoaching he receives, but that’s something for tennis to address more than Tsitsipas himself. Gamesmanship – pushing the boundaries of rules – becomes less of a problem if the rules are written and structured in ways which become less exploitable. This is a tennis governance issue more than a Tsitsipas problem, but that would require tennis being self-accountable, which it has a hard time doing.
Nevertheless, Tsitsipas was in a cluttered mental state. This was very bad news for his chances at the 2021 U.S. Open, but this was not likely to strike him down against an 18-year-old with so little direct knowledge of how to handle a five-set match inside the world’s biggest tennis stadium (nearly 24,000 seats).
It would have been very easy for Alcaraz to fade away on several different occasions in this match – after his 4-0 first-set lead was reduced to 4-3; after he blew a 3-0 second-set lead; after the fourth-set bagel; and in each of the two tiebreakers he played. Yet, Alcaraz was pure steel at each of those critical junctures. Tsitsipas was inconsistent because of the state of his mind. Alcaraz was inconsistent because of his youthful exuberance and lack of firsthand experience. This was a roller-coaster for both players, being tossed about by the storms of the human condition in the taxing, stressful conditions major-tournament tennis unfailingly presents as the challenge one most solve on the path to greatness.
The fact that Alcaraz rode the roller-coaster better than Stef is a small but real sign that he has a chance to be great. We don’t have to confer greatness upon him. We don’t have to engage in a coronation of Alcaraz as “The Next Big Thing.” Look at how that worked with Felix Auger-Aliassime (who is having a good tournament in New York but still appears to be a few notches below the elites in terms of quality and major-tournament chops).
We can simply say that with young Carlos Alcaraz, the ingredients are there for a special career. We will see how well he uses his whisk, mixing bowl, and spatula in the coming years.