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US Open: As Alcaraz, Ruud face off in a winner-takes-all final, more than bragging rights at stake

Both players eye maiden Grand Slam title, with the winner set to become the new World No. 1

In a high-stakes singles final on Sunday, the winner will claim his first Grand Slam title and also become the new World No. 1; an opportunity to achieve two huge milestones at once. (AP)

In a first-of-its-kind match at the US Open, Carlos Alcaraz and Casper Ruud will be vying to take the next step in their tennis careers, at great cost to the other.

In a high-stakes singles final on Sunday, the winner will claim his first Grand Slam title and also become the new World No. 1; an opportunity to achieve two huge milestones at once.

The possibility of the matchup has been brewing ever since current No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal lost in the fourth round. With the stakes ramped up even higher, it’s a contest that could hinge on the finest tactical margins.


Will fatigue set in for Alcaraz?

At 19, Alcaraz has become the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Nadal in 2005. He’s a teenager, and a first time Major finalist, but he’s hardly a stranger to the big stage.

The Spaniard’s rise up the rankings was meteoric this year – four titles in three months which included two Masters 1000s – made him a big favourite for the French Open earlier this year. Alcaraz has had a massive amount of attention on him since, and he’s been playing with a target on his back. But the 19-year-old has dealt with the weight of expectations expertly, and almost thrived on it.

He comes into the US Open final on the back of three consecutive late-night five-set thrillers, which would have taken a toll on him. In total, he has spent over 14 hours on court in those matches, and had to dig deep physically and emotionally to be able to fight back from adverse positions.


Alcaraz may thrive on the big stage, and his unending stamina may make him seem tireless, but an element of fatigue may have set in. That could be a huge advantage for Ruud, given how dependent the Spaniard’s game is on his stamina and energy. For all his shotmaking abilities, it is Alcaraz’s athleticism that usually helps him prevail in the big encounters, and create compilation-worthy moments on court.

Explained

Why Alcaraz may target Ruud’s backhand

A big strategy employed by Nadal in the French Open final was to isolate Ruud’s backhand and open up the court to his advantage. It is the Norwegian’s weaker wing, and despite it holding up well this fortnight, it cannot do nearly as much damage as his forehand, especially when he’s forced to go down the line with it. Nadal was able to do so using his lefty serve and forehand, but other players have employed that strategy too. Ruud won 11 of the first 13 games in his quarterfinal against Matteo Berrettini this week, before the Italian began going hard into Ruud’s backhand corners. He may have lost the encounter in straight sets, but the results were there, making a match of a one-sided contest from there on. Alcaraz may look to angle his shots into Ruud’s backhand – especially while returning serve – in order to neutralise his strengths. Doing so could give him control of the baseline rallies.

Not a single corner of the court is out of his reach, and he is able to chase down balls and shots that most players would not even try. That may seem like a waste – he likely loses most of those points – but in making his opponents work hard for every point and make split-second decisions, he piles on the pressure and the errors begin to creep. It is not a conincidence that most of his opponents last fortnight have had unusually high unforced error counts.

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If his stamina runs out, Alcaraz may not have enough in his game to simply outplay Ruud from the baseline. For him, offence and defence go hand in hand, and the emotional and physical toll this past week has had on him may affect that balance.

‘Clay specialist’ Ruud emerges as a hardcourt force

During his steady rise to the top of the men’s game over the past few years, Ruud is well aware of the criticisms he has faced for surviving on his ability on clay courts alone. It is the Norwegian’s best surface – he’s won in Gstaad and Geneva this year and reached the French Open final – but not even his greatest critics can argue that his place in the US Open final is well-deserved.

The 23-year-old has shown remarkable tenacity and work rate during this run, and the no-nonsense way he has gone about his game has introduced an element of maturity that may not have settled in during Roland Garros this year.

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Isolating opponents’ weaknesses becomes much easier for Ruud as he can control so much of the momentum in the baseline exchanges through his sledgehammer of a forehand. The Norwegian finds so much purchase on the shot through high levels of topspin that it can hand him control of the rally almost instantly.

Alcaraz’s forehand can be destructive at times, and it should make for some great crosscourt exchanges, but when Ruud is able to find depth on that wing, he can push Alcaraz further and further behind the baseline, negating the Spaniard’s spectacular footspeed and court coverage.

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The way Ruud uses his forehand could determine much of the encounter, and he has the weapons in his arsenal to outplay Alcaraz. But at Flushing Meadows, he has shown the mental fortitude required to produce results when the match is not on his racquet. Ruud has been in a Grand Slam final before, and as daunting as it may be taking on the crowd favourite in a Major final, a huge opportunity awaits him if he is able to weather his nerves.

First published on: 10-09-2022 at 10:27:01 pm
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