Timing is every little thing for Carlos Alcaraz

The US Open victory party at Carlos Alcaraz’s Manhattan hotel ended before 3 a.m. Monday, which was early by his standards in this 24-hour Grand Slam event.

“After the Cilic match, I went to bed at 5:15 a.m., after the Sinner match at 6 a.m.,” he explained quite tiredly, as he sat in the back seat of an SUV and his eyes from his interlocutor to the road steered outside the tinted windows.

He taxied to Times Square for a rendezvous with his new trophy, and when he got there he stepped onto the sidewalk in jeans and blue-and-white sneakers and was soon holding up the silverware while the photographers — professionals and amateurs alike — clicked away as one crowd began to gather.

“Numero uno!” someone shouted in Spanish.

Alcaraz took note, just as he had after waking up on Monday and looking at the updated ATP rankings on his phone.

“I had to be sure,” he said.

At 19, Alcaraz is the youngest No. 1 since the ATP rankings were launched in 1973. That’s quite an achievement in a sport that has had many child prodigies: from Bjorn Borg to Mats Wilander, Boris Becker to Pete Sampras to Alcaraz’ Spanish compatriot Rafael Nadal, who also won his first major at the age of 19 (at the 2005 French Open).

But Alcaraz’s meteoric rise to the top wasn’t down to his genius alone – although the word, which should be used very sparingly in tennis or anything else, seems to apply to his acrobatic fall.

His coronation is also due to the timing:

On Novak Djokovic’s refusal to get vaccinated against Covid-19, which kept him away from this year’s Australian Open and US Open and four Masters 1000 events in North America.

On Nadal’s limited schedule due to a string of injuries.

To the exceptional situation at Wimbledon, which Djokovic won again in July but didn’t earn him any ranking points; The tournament had been stripped of points from the men’s and women’s tours because of Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players because of the war in Ukraine.

Alcaraz’s situation is radically different from the case of Nadal, who as a longtime No. 2 had to chase Roger Federer for years before finally securing the top spot.

Alcaraz has reached No. 1 ahead of the end of his second full season on tour and after winning his first major title with a four-set win over Casper Ruud on Sunday.

“Listen, I don’t want to do myself any credit,” said Alcaraz. “But it’s true that Rafa, Djokovic, Federer were in a period where they all played. I was lucky or whatever you want to call it that Djokovic couldn’t play. Everyone has their reasons, but that’s the reality. He couldn’t play much for a while and Rafa kept playing, but not all year either. But like I said, I don’t want to take credit for myself. I’ve played all season, played incredible matches and incredible tournaments, and I’ve worked really hard to make things like this happen.”

At the end of 2021, Alcaraz was considered one of the brightest young talents in the game, being ranked 32nd. Less than nine months later he has won the Rio Open, Miami Open, Barcelona Open, Madrid Open and now his first Grand Slam title at the US Open.

Along the way he has beaten the old guard by beating Nadal and Djokovic in Madrid and the new wave by beating 21-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner, 24-year-old American Frances Tiafoe and 23-year-old Ruud in New York.

Alcaraz’ last duel with Sinner in the quarter-finals was the match of the tournament, it was played over five sets in five hours and 15 minutes at almost full throttle, with Alcaraz saving a match point in the fourth set.

It was also the youngest final in US Open history, ending at 2:50, which is certainly remarkable but also a dubious honor, even if Sunday’s tournament presented him with a commemorative photo of that record-breaking match.

Getting ready at this hour (and going to sleep at 6am) is not a way for a top athlete to optimize their performance, or for a major sporting event to maximize its reach, even if tennis is a global sport and 2:50 Clock in New York is the best choice time in certain parts of the world.

On the plus side, this was the first time in US Open history that all sessions at Arthur Ashe Stadium were sold out. This was partly due to Serena Williams’ announcement that the end of her career was imminent, sparking interest in week one tickets at Ashe Stadium.

But Stacey Allaster, the US Open tournament director, said officials would certainly revisit the night’s session schedule ahead of the 2023 Open.

But what is clear is that Alcaraz’s three consecutive late-night marathons didn’t stop him from the championship. He beat Marin Cilic, Sinner and Tiafoe in five sets before defeating Ruud and became the third man in the Open era to win a major after winning three consecutive five-setters. (Stefan Edberg did it at the 1992 US Open and Gustavo Kuerten did it at the 1997 French Open.)

Like the sleek Edberg and the resilient Kuerten, Alcaraz’s recovery has been amazing and, for now at least, he plans to play for Spain in the Davis Cup in Valencia later this week after being flown home.

In an interview with the Spanish publication El País, Juanjo Moreno, Alcaraz’s physiotherapist, said Alcaraz has “a good genetic makeup that we have been able to bring to its maximum splendour”.

Moreno explained that the team paid close attention to Alcaraz’s hydration and energy replenishment during games, which included taking caffeine, a legal supplement.

But Moreno said post-game recovery is key: focusing on using a stationary bike, hot and cold contrast baths, massages and what he calls the “four Rs.” These are “rehydration, muscle glycogen replenishment, restoration of lost amino acids and recovery for the immune system”.

Good sleep is also important. “The other day we helped him with a sleeping pill because we had given him a lot of caffeine,” Moreno told El País.

But Alcaraz said on Monday other less scientific factors also played a role.

“I’m 19 years old,” he said with a grin. “And I’ve worked a lot and really hard in recovery day in and day out and I have a great team.”

He offered his thanks.

“But mostly it was going on the pitch with the adrenaline, the games and everything,” he said. “You forget the pain. You forget the tiredness and push through.”

Alcaraz used the Spanish word “aguantar”, which his team in New York kept shouting at him from the players’ box.

“Of course I was in pain,” said Alcaraz. “It’s been so difficult after so many games and things bother you but you have to fight your way through.”

He did so in often spectacular style, displaying his phenomenal speed and timing, his ability to adapt on the fly and his rare ability to take big risks on big points that paid off.

It’s quite a skill, quite a fan-friendly package and it made for a much happier ending in New York than his debut appearance in 2021, when he was later forced to retire after a third-round upset by Stefanos Tsitsipas with a leg injury against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second set of their quarterfinals.

“A year ago I came here as a freshman, a kid experiencing everything for the first time, including Arthur Ashe Stadium,” said Alcaraz. “I think I was a player who could win against anyone but wasn’t ready to get to the physical, mental and tennis level for two full weeks.

“A year later, I’ve changed a lot. I feel ready to maintain this level.”

The proof was in Times Square on Monday as he held up his trophy, but more importantly the proof was there night after night at Ashe Stadium as he fended off rival after rival in the nearly 24,000 crowd, which he often felt gave He played at home. (The Tiafoe match was an exception.)

“I think my city in Spain has about the same population as Arthur Ashe Stadium,” said Alcaraz, who is from El Palmar, a suburb of Murcia. “I took a moment during the final and looked around and to see all these people and all these seats filled to the top row was amazing.”

In a pre-season interview, Alcaraz was asked which major tournament he would most like to win. The US Open was his answer.

Mission accomplished, even if the love affair is just beginning.

“I feel a special bond,” he says. “I think my game suits this place and what people are looking for when they come. There is energy. It’s dynamic and I don’t think they know what I’m going to do next. I think that’s part of the connection.”

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