The 2022 US Open has definitively showcased a new chapter in professional tennis.
All eight men’s singles quarterfinalists were seeking their first major title. The four players who emerged as semifinalists had never before ventured that far at the US Open.
And the two remaining to battle it out in the final – Carlos Alcaraz and Casper Ruud – have never played a match with more on the line.
You could barely script the occasion better if you tried.
The gloves will be off in the #USOpen final. 🥊 pic.twitter.com/4M7xObfn0W— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 10, 2022
Not only will the winner experience the rush of a Grand Slam triumph, something they have no doubt been dreaming about since childhood.
They will also simultaneously ascend to become the sport’s newest world No.1.
One can draw parallels between this match-up and the Australian Open 2018 women’s final between Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki.
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Both Halep and Wozniacki were playing for their first major title, and the victor would also clinch the No.1 ranking.
What unfolded in Melbourne that night was a glorious battle that captivated the crowd and exhausted the physical and emotional reserves of both combatants.
Sometimes, the more significant the context, the greater the contest that emerges from within that.
Ruud, for one, is happy this scenario has unfolded in the manner it has.
The Norwegian outplayed Karen Khachanov in four sets in the first of Friday’s semifinals, knowing that, if Alcaraz lost to Frances Tiafoe in the second semifinal, the No.1 ranking would be his.
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He joked he would sleep well if he went to bed with confirmation he had secured the top ranking.
But he preferred the alternative.
“I think what's most fair is if we both reach the final and whoever wins the final reaches the world No. 1,” Ruud said.
“That would be I think the ideal situation.”
That will be what plays out, because Alcaraz went on to eventually subdue an inspired Tiafoe.
Tiafoe was attempting to become the first home-grown player into the final at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick 16 years earlier in 2006.
And he fought gallantly, electrifying Arthur Ashe Stadium as he forced a fifth set despite trailing two-sets-to-one and 3-1 in the fourth, and saving a match point later in the fourth set.
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But Alcaraz, the Spanish teenager, showed incredible spirit, endurance and poise to prevail.
This is his first time in a Grand Slam decider, whereas Ruud has already appeared at this stage of a major, after progressing to the Roland Garros final in June.
There, he was dismantled by Rafael Nadal, and admitted he was happy that, this time, he was not facing the perennially-dominant Nadal on clay for a Grand Slam trophy.
Ruud has been steadily and methodically building to his point.
In his sixth season on the pro tour, he has finally cracked the Grand Slam code, far surpassing his goal of a maiden major quarterfinal by progressing to two Slam finals in 2022.
There has been criticism in some quarters that he is on the brink of world No.1 without having won a title above ATP 250 level.
But Ruud believes that without those titles, he would not be where he is today.
“Every match is important. That goes to show why I have the chance to become world No.1, because I won three 250s this year which in the end gives me 750 points in the race. If I would have played those tournaments thinking, Yeah, it's not that important because there's a Grand Slam coming, I wouldn't be in this position,” he explained.
“I'm happy with the road and journey that I've achieved or done. I hope it can continue.”
Alcaraz, conversely, has seemed predestined for ultimate glory, arriving at this point following success on some of the sport’s biggest stages.
In a blistering start to 2022, he claimed four titles, including two Masters 1000 trophies in Miami – where he defeated Ruud in the final – and Madrid, where he beat titans Nadal and Novak Djokovic back-to-back.
That victory over Ruud was his second in as many career meetings; Alcaraz has won all four sets they’ve contested.
But will he have anything left for Sunday’s finale?
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Alcaraz and Tiafoe played tennis worthy of a lengthy highlight reel before the 19-year-old eventually prevailed after four hours and 19 minutes.
It was his third dramatic five-setter in a row, after going the distance against Marin Cilic and Jannik Sinner – matches which both extended beyond 2:00am local time.
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"(I'm) a little bit tired. But I feel great. Right now I'm just so, so happy. I thought about a young man like 10 years ago dreaming for this moment right now," said Alcaraz, who would become the youngest ever No.1 in ATP rankings history should he win Sunday's final.
"I would say now I'm more prepared. Now I've played more matches in five sets, I am more prepared mentally and physically. It was 12 months (since last year's US Open quarterfinal run) of working hard in the gym, on the court.
"But I would say it's all mental."
Ruud will provide the sternest of physical tests, evidenced by the extraordinary 55-stroke rally he won to seal the opening set of his semifinal.
Just your basic 55-shot rally to clinch the first set.#USOpen pic.twitter.com/sVwr7rYXj7— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 9, 2022
It was a nervous encounter against Khachanov from which he ultimately emerged victorious.
And Ruud knows that, with so much on the line in Sunday’s final, it could be similar tennis against Alcaraz.
“Of course, there will be nerves and we will both feel it. I hope it will be a good match,” he said.
“He has beaten me a couple times and I will seek my revenge.”