By James Steel
The US Open 2022 Men’s Final Preview
‘The queen is dead, long live the king’.
In the United Kingdom, these words are being said in unison at all formal events, but across the pond on the east coast of the United States, this statement is being played out in the Arther Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums at Flushing Meadows. In one corner is Casper Ruud, the world number 7 whose achievements include the French Open final, Miami Open Final, and an amusing number of clay court ATP 250 titles. In the other corner is Carlos Alcaraz, the current ATP Next Gen champion whose achievements include two ATP 1000 titles in Miami and Madrid and two ATP 500 titles in Rio and Barcelona.
Now I’m not suggesting that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are gone. They most certainly are still major forces in the game and will most likely win more major titles in the near future. But given Djokovic’s medical choices and questions on the fitness of Nadal, there has been a gap that has opened up at the top of the game for players to step into the void of current tennis royalty and the two players in Sunday’s final are certainly attempting to do that. This preview will go through how they got there and what could happen in the match.
Casper Ruud (5)
Ruud is having one the best seasons of his life, even without playing the first major of the year down under. He has affirmed himself as a top 10 player with deep runs in Roland Garros and Miami, reaching the final in both. Coupling these runs, Casper has followed up on his previous years ATP 250 successes by defending his two Swiss titles in Geneva and Gstaad and also adding a title at the beginning of the year in Buenos Aires.
Now a common criticism placed on Ruud is that he is a clay court specialist who is a mercenary only at the clay ATP 250 level. But over the last year, Casper has started to prove himself in the mind’s of his doubters. In late September and early October, he won his first hard court title in San Diego, beating Cameron Norrie in the final, a feat even more impressive given a couple weeks later, Norrie went on to win the Indian Wells ATP Masters 1000 title. The final in Miami in March this year also illustrated his hard court game, defeating Sasha Zverev and Norrie on the way to the final.
Now bringing it to the tournament at hand, Ruud has ridden over a range of tricky opponents throughout. His most notable win came in the quarter-final, where he dealt with Matteo Berrettini in impressive fashion, defeating the Italian in straight sets. There have been two positives to his game this tournament: his fitness and his backhand stroke. In terms of his fitness, he’s looked immense and there has never been any signs of fatigue throughout all of his matches played, with the Norwegian chasing down balls from the first point to the last and utilising every facet of the defensive game that he favours. The backhand has also shown considerable strength. Rarely has it let him down and it’s found a near-baseline consistency in all of his matches so far.
If we’re looking for possible areas of weakness however, Ruud has had lapses in concentration in a couple of matches. In both the fourth round against Corentin Moutet and the semi-final against Karen Khachanov, there was a noticeable drop in tempo during the third set and this led to those sets being dropped and an extension of the match. Ruud would obviously go on to win both of these contests by upping the tempo immediately in the fourth sets but it’s still a concern for him and could prove fatal against an opponent with the ability to capitalise on such moments…
Carlos Alcaraz (3)
There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe this second main tour season for the teenage Spaniard. Alcaraz started the year with a good run in Australia, narrowly losing out to Matteo Berrettini in the third round of the Australian Open, but it was in February and March when we would truly see a breakthrough. In February, he picked up his first ATP 500 title on the clay in Rio, beating Berrettini and Diego Shwartzman along the way. Then in March, Alcaraz showed he was a real talent by getting to the semi-final of Indian Wells before narrowly losing out to one Rafeal Nadal. Things really ramped up a notch when he won his first ATP 1000 Masters title on the hard courts of Miami, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas, Hubert Hurkacz and then a certain Casper Ruud in the final. Following these with big titles on the European clay at the ATP 500 in Barcelona and his second ATP Masters 1000 title in Madrid. It’s this second Masters title that deserves particular applause, highlighted as it is with wins over Norrie, Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev.
However, it has not been completely plain sailing for Alcaraz. Rightly or wrongly, there were title expectations at Roland Garros which ended in the quarter-finals. Following this, there was an inactive grass court warmup season followed by a fourth round exit to Jannik Sinner at Wimbledon. After this, the mini central European clay season would see him claim two final losses in Hamburg to Lorenzo Musetti and in Umag with a loss to Sinner. Things didn’t look better when he hit North American soil with a second round exit to Tommy Paul in Montreal and a quarter-final exit to Norrie in Cincinnati.
Moving onto this tournament, you could be forgiven for believing `Alcaraz’s matches were played on Broadway, for there has been so much drama and theatrics. The past three have all gone the distance, both in terms of length and the time of night it finishes, so much so that I as a European tennis fas has been able to watch the final set or two whilst eating my breakfast! There was of course the match of the year in many people’s eyes with the quarter-final against Sinner that produced a level of tennis that pleased the tennis community and gave us all hope that there will be outstanding matches and rivalries once the ‘Big 4’ depart from tour courts.
The main pickup from this tournament with Alcaraz’s game has definitely been his problem solving and the variety in his game. The problem solving is something I do want to highlight as it shows an incredible level of emotional maturity. If we look at his last two major performances, there was a sense that he couldn’t solve his way out of the game if plan A didn’t work and both Zverev and Sinner played on this to get their four set victories. This looks to be much improved upon with Alcaraz changing up parts of his game when he needed to break Sinner back at key parts in their quarter final and demonstrating variety in his game in all its glory.
Now for the main event itself. I am backing Alcaraz in four sets. The reason for this breaks down into three elements. First, the game of Alcaraz when firing can blow Ruud off the court. We witnessed this in the Miami final, where after a slow start Alcaraz was firing forehand and backhand winners from all over the court with little answers being offered by Ruud. Second would be the counter punching capabilities of Alcaraz are just that bit better than Ruud’s. If you watch the Miami final back again, there are a range of occasions that Ruud was on top of the point and Alcaraz finds a way to snatch it away from him. Third and finally, pressure and mentality. With Alcaraz, we have seen that in the big moments in the big tournaments, he has delivered time and time again. We don’t have that certainty with Ruud and with the way he crumbled against Nadal in the final at Roland Garros, there is that worry. In the big moments, can Ruud deliver?
The answer at the moment is no.