It was the latest finish ever at the U.S. Open, played in a city that purportedly never sleeps, but Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner made it well worth staying up into the wee hours.
In one of the best (and longest) matches ever contested at this Grand Slam tournament in New York, Alcaraz, a 19-year-old Spanish prodigy, fought off a match point in the fourth set to defeat Sinner, a 21-year-old Italian prodigy, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-7 (0), 7-5, 6-3, to advance to the semifinals.
“I always say you have to believe in yourself all the time, and that hope is the last thing you lose,” Alcaraz said in an on-court interview early Thursday morning. “I just believed in myself and believed in my game.”
The match, an instant-classic quarterfinal, lasted 5 hours and 15 minutes, the second longest Open match ever, and finished at 2:50 a.m., 24 minutes later than the previous record shared by three matches.
The suspense and tension was that constant, the quality of the shotmaking and the effort that transcendent.
Alcaraz, seeded third, and Sinner, seeded 11th, have long been considered the future of tennis, but they looked much more like the present after the match started on Wednesday night, setting a torrid pace from the baseline and chasing down each other’s drop shots and would-be winners.
But only Alcaraz, an acrobatic speedster from Murcia, will have a chance to make his big breakthrough at this unusually wide-open tournament. He will face Frances Tiafoe of the United States on Friday in what will be the first Grand Slam semifinal for both men. In the other semifinal, Casper Ruud of Norway will face Karen Khachanov of Russia.
None of those four men have won a major singles title: no dishonor and no surprise in a long-running era that has been dominated by the Big 3 of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
But neither Federer nor Djokovic played this year in New York, and Nadal, short on matches and perhaps even a little short on inspiration after a taxing season, was upset in the fourth round by Tiafoe, a flashy 24-year-old who is the first American man since Andy Roddick in 2006 to advance this far at his home Grand Slam event.
Tiafoe will surely have the majority of the support in Arthur Ashe Stadium, with its capacity of nearly 28,000. He will also have the advantage of extra rest.
His three-set match with Andrey Rublev was played in the day session, which allowed Tiafoe to settle in for the evening at his hotel as Alcaraz and Sinner pushed each other historically deep into the night.
The match was the second longest ever played at the U.S. Open, behind only the 1992 semifinal between Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang, won by Edberg in 5 hours and 26 minutes.
But Alcaraz, who fell onto his back and dropped to the court after closing out the match with a service winner, looked anything but pessimistic as he tapped his chest and thanked the few thousand fans who stayed until the finish.
The digital clock on the court showed that it was just about 3 a.m., but it wasn’t too early to look ahead to his next match.
“It’s going to be really, really tough,” Alcaraz said at a news conference that finished shortly before 4 a.m. “Everybody knows the level of Frances. He has beaten Rafa Nadal; Rublev in three sets. He’s playing unbelievable right now: high confidence. He loves the crowd. He loves this court.”
Despite Alcaraz’s youth, this is becoming a habit. His previous match against Marin Cilic — another five-set duel — also concluded after 2 a.m., and the late-night finishes will almost certainly revive the debate about the wisdom of putting athletes of any age in this position.
The U.S. Open is not alone: The Australian Open, the first major of the season, has had even later finishes. But with a night session that begins at 7 p.m. (or later) and typically includes a best-of-three-set women’s match and a best-of-five-set men’s match, there is always a risk of sleep deprivation.
Changing the start times or programming could address the situation, but it must be balanced with the strong emphasis on giving the men and women equal billing on the main show court. Night sessions are also an important source of revenue for the majors and many other tour events (the French Open recently added one as well in 2021).
But Alcaraz, who is in the middle of a breakthrough season, has already demonstrated that he can recover from one nocturnal marathon. Now he will get a second opportunity. He is the youngest man to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open since Pete Sampras, an American who was 19 in 1990 when he went on to win the title.
Alcaraz grew up playing almost exclusively on clay in Murcia, in southeastern Spain, at a local club developed by his grandfather. But in recent years, he has begun training much more often on hardcourts at the JC Ferrero Equelite Sport Academy in Villena, about 60 miles away, where Alcaraz boards and works with his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former world No. 1 for whom the academy is named.
Though Alcaraz beat Nadal and Djokovic to win the Masters 1000 title on clay in Madrid this year, and reached the quarterfinals of the French Open, his best results so far in his short career have come on hardcourts. He reached the quarterfinals last year in his debut U.S. Open and reached the semifinal of the BNP Paribas Open in March before winning the Miami Open.
He has an all-action style, and he frequently slides into near splits even on a hardcourt, a surface that allows him to make fast changes in direction and get the full benefit of his quickness.
Sinner, who defeated Alcaraz in July in the fourth round at Wimbledon, repeatedly had to hit three or four terrific shots close to the lines to secure points as Alcaraz stretched and skidded to retrieve balls that would have escaped the reach of lesser talents.
Sinner is not as quick, not as much of a showman, but he has his own enviable strengths, including an ability to produce smooth, seemingly effortless power and precision by punching and counterpunching near or inside the baseline.
Both young men squandered opportunities that could have made their night easier (and shorter), but that was due, in part, to the resilience and skills of the opposition.
When Sinner served for the match at 5-4, he could not seal the deal, failing to convert his lone match point at 40-30 when he missed a backhand off a strong second-serve return. Sinner then missed a forehand swing volley just wide to allow Alcaraz to even the score at 5-5.
Alcaraz swept through the next two games to force a fifth set, which began at 2:05 a.m. after four and a half hours of toe-to-toe tennis.
And yet the level did not drop, as both men continued hustling to all corners of the court and making magic on the move.
“I was ready for a tough, tough battle,” Sinner said. “I feel physically for sure more ready to play these kind of matches for hours and hours.”
Despite the next-generation masterwork that was on display early into Thursday morning, there is no guarantee in elite sports, certainly not in tennis, that the promise will be fully realized over the long run.
For an example, Alcaraz and Sinner needed to look no further than one of the spectators at Ashe Stadium: Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open men’s champion.
A towering Argentine with thunderous strokes, he looked likely to take his place alongside the Big 3, only to see his career interrupted and ultimately ended by major wrist and knee injuries.
The lesson is clear: Seize the championship opportunities when they arise, regardless of your age or your upside.
And though both Alcaraz and Sinner had this marvelous match in their grasp as Wednesday night turned into Thursday, only Alcaraz got to experience the mixture of euphoria and relief that comes with this kind of special victory.
“I think this one will hurt for quite a while,” said Sinner in his very-late-night news conference.
Alcaraz can still win the U.S. Open, but first he had better get some sleep.