No need to worry, tennis fans. The future of the sport is in exceptional hands.
The 2022 U.S. Open started with a much-deserved, star-studded farewell to legend Serena Williams, who showed up to her goodbye party dressed as only she can – in a glittery figure skating-inspired tennis dress and custom sneakers emblazoned with 400 hand-set diamonds with the words “Queen” and “Mama” embroidered on solid gold shoelace tags.
Williams’ three matches drew 80,000 spectators as everyone wanted to get a final look at one of the greatest athletes of all time. There was a sense of sadness when she walked off the court for almost certainly the last time after a third-round loss to Ajla Tomljanovic.
But by the final weekend of the tournament, 19-year-old Spanish phenom Carlos Alcaraz had cemented his place as “The Next Big Thing” in tennis, and it was abundantly clear that there will be a handful of exciting players to watch after Serena, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic are gone.
Time will tell whether the new generation will dominate as those four did – 20 of the past 23 men’s major titles were won by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – but it should be a fun ride.
The electrifying Alcaraz, a “generational talent” in the words of John McEnroe, on Monday became the youngest world No. 1 since the ATP rankings were created nearly 50 years ago. He possesses a rare blend of power, speed, finesse, variety and composure that belie his youth. His point construction is superb, his drop shots daring and his court coverage is reminiscent of Djokovic, down to the slides.
He also has Nadal’s stamina.
Alcaraz spent 23 hours, 39 minutes on the court at the U.S. Open, energizing crowds and giving his all until the wee hours of the morning. His five-set Round of 16 win over Marin Cilic ended at 2:23 a.m. His thrilling quarterfinal win against Italy’s Jannik Sinner lasted 5 hours, 15 minutes and ended at 2:50 a.m., later than any other match in tournament history.
Then came the entertaining semifinal win over Frances Tiafoe, the first American man to reach the U.S. Open semis since Andy Roddick in 2006 and the first African American to get that far since Arthur Ashe in 1972.
Tennis aficionados have long known about Tiafoe’s talent and made-for-Hollywood story — he picked up the sport at a Maryland tennis club where his father, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, was the janitor. But a Round of 16 upset of Nadal and U.S. Open center court against Alcaraz raised Tiafoe’s profile to new heights.
Former first lady Michelle Obama cheered from her stadium seat. LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes were among the superstar athletes rooting for Tiafoe on social media. The American rallied to capture the fourth set in a tiebreaker, but Alcaraz owned the final set.
The championship match against Norwegian Casper Ruud showed Alcaraz’s resilience. Every time it seemed Ruud had gained momentum and Alcaraz had run out of gas, the Spaniard would chase down the ball and come up with an acrobatic shot, lobs, drop shots, the perfect angled winner.
For those who attended the Miami Open men’s final this spring, it was no surprise that Alcaraz and Ruud would put on a show. They were the finalists at Hard Rock Stadium and showed glimpses of greatness. Alcaraz got a congratulatory call from Felipe VI King of Spain after the win.
I wrote on that day:
“Any tennis fan worried about the future of the men’s game as Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic get older need only watch a replay of Sunday’s Miami Open final. Carlos Alcaraz, the fearless 18-year-old Spaniard with the audacious drop shot, showed why he is the sport’s latest rage with a 7-5, 6-4 win over seventh-ranked Norwegian Casper Ruud.
“Alcaraz became the youngest Miami Open champion in the tournament’s 37-year history, besting Djokovic, who was 19 when he won in 2007.”
A few months later, at the Madrid Open in May, Alcaraz pulled off back-to-back stunners. He beat boyhood idol Nadal in the quarterfinals and upset then-top ranked Djokovic in the semis before cruising past Alexander Zverev in the final.
Despite the Spaniard’s success, it seemed this U.S. Open would be lacking on the men’s side with the absence of Federer, who at 41 has not played since Wimbledon 2021 while rehabbing from his third knee surgery in 18 months, and Djokovic, who is unvaccinated against COVID and was unable to enter the United States.
Nadal carried the banner for The Big 3 but exited in the Round of 16.
As if on cue, a cast of previous understudies stole center stage. On the men’s side we got more acquainted with Alcaraz, Sinner, Tiafoe, Ruud and Nick Kyrgios, the controversial but always entertaining Australian who is proving this year that he is more than just a sideshow.
On the women’s side, Poland’s thoughtful and friendly Iga Swiatek beat three top-10 players to win the U.S. Open, following up on her French Open title earlier this summer. Every chance she gets, she reminds the world about the war in Ukraine.
The other women’s finalist is also fascinating. Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, 28, became the first Arab and first African woman to make a Grand Slam final, reaching championship matches at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
American Coco Gauff, 18, reached her first Grand Slam final at the French Open and delighted fans in New York, as well.
The final weekend of this U.S. Open did not include Serena, Roger, Rafa, or Novak. And yet, the grounds were packed. The tournament drew a record crowd of 888,044 over the two and a half weeks.
ESPN ratings were up 50 percent over last year. Part of that was Serena, of course, but fans kept watching long after she departed.
The semifinal between Alcaraz and Tiafoe averaged 2.96 million viewers – peaking at 3.6 million – and ranks as ESPN’s ninth biggest tennis audience on record. It was also the biggest tennis audience for a match from a Major event that did not include legends Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Serena Williams.
We have been wondering for quite some time what tennis will look like after our beloved quartet of legends retires. Now we know. We have reason to keep tuning in.