NEW YORK — From the very first game, it looked like Stefanos Tsitsipas had a big problem: 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz’ crosscourt forehand.
It came in at a deep angle, and it was incredibly fast. And before Tsitsipas could readjust after going on the defense to return that crosscourt forehand — if he managed to get to it in the first place — Alcaraz often followed it with a drop shot. That soft touch made Tsitsipas move from the far end of the court to the front.
Tsitsipas had moments when he shined but never dominated cohesively and consistently throughout the match. He played his second five-setter and second four-hour-plus match in one week, and lost it 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 0-6, 7-6.
“It’s one of these matches and one of these feelings where … you feel like you’re in control, and it doesn’t really go your way at the end,” Tsitsipas said at the news conference following the match.
And he has had those moments too many times since his French Open final in June.
Tsitsipas had a fairytale French Open run this year, becoming the first Greek player in history to reach a Grand Slam final, beating Alexander Zverev in five sets to get there. Then, in the final against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, after leading two sets to love, he plundered, losing the next three sets. He has not recovered.
He went into Wimbledon as one of the favorites, but made a shocking first-round exit, losing to American Frances Tiafoe. Then, at the Olympics, he lost to France’s Ugo Humbert in three sets.
Friday’s match against Alcaraz was a repeat of similar mistakes throughout the year in not capitalizing on big breaks.
Alcaraz was consistent, so when Tsitsipas’ focus slipped, he pounced, not giving the No. 3 seed another chance.
And that surprised Tsitsipas.
“[Alcaraz was] hitting winners after the first return of mine, just being so much in control, which was surprising, especially in the fifth set. I didn’t expect him to raise his level so much,” Tsitsipas said.
“I was returning pretty deep, applying pressure on my returns. I don’t know how much harder I need to hit my return in order to apply pressure,” he added.
After a grueling four-hour match, in which he was only really in complete control in the fourth set, which he dominated 6-0, Tsitsipas mostly played defense, struggling to take control once Alcaraz blitzed a forehand to the opposite end of his court.
Throughout the match, he was not just playing against the 18-year-old Spaniard, but he was also playing against a packed Arthur Ashe crowd, which was on Alcaraz’s side throughout. They chanted “Carlos, Carlos,” right before break points, and booed Tsitsipas whenever they got a chance. Once it was after a warning for time violation, and then it was after a warning for coaching violation.
“I feel like people, they don’t understand. They are here for the show. They want to watch tennis. They’re very impatient, especially the new generation. They just want to get it done quick,” he said.
Speaking about Alcaraz’s talent, Tsitsipas said the up-and-comer is a “contender for Grand Slam titles.”
Alcaraz has had a breakthrough year, qualifying for the main draw of the 2021 Australian Open at age 17 and winning the first round against qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp. At the Madrid Open, he became the youngest winner in the history of the tournament, beating France’s Adrian Mannarino before losing to his idol, Rafael Nadal, on his 18th birthday. After his third-round appearance at the French Open, he also made the Round of 16 at the Winston-Salem Open.
But Friday’s victory against Tsitsipas is the biggest win in the biggest tournament he has played so far. With this win, Alcaraz became the youngest player to beat a top-three ATP player since the rankings were introduced in 1973. He also became the youngest player to reach the fourth round since 1989.
“I just don’t know what happened out there in the court. I can’t believe that I beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in an epic match. For me, it’s a dream come true,” he said at the news conference.
Alcaraz, who has trained with Nadal, has said in the past that he likes Nadal’s training routine and the way he hits the ball hard. When asked which athlete’s play resembles his game the most, he said, “Federer. Trying to be aggressive all the time,” he said.
And, Tsitsipas said, that the aggressiveness was what made him so good, so dangerous.
“His ball speed was incredible. I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard. Took time to adjust. Took time to kind of develop my game around his game style,” Tsitsipas said. “I have never seen someone play such a good fifth set, honestly.”
Tsitsipas said he felt bitter after the match, that it was one of those matches he walked away from thinking things didn’t go his way even though he felt in control. He said if a few moments had gone his way — if he had taken the third set tiebreaker, particularly — Alcaraz would have lost the momentum. Even still, he said he was shocked to see Alcaraz’s comeback after his dominating performance in the fourth set, a bagel after a three-minute, 45-second bathroom break.
“I didn’t expect him to raise his level so much, especially after having lost the fourth set this way. He was a completely different player,” Tsitsipas said. There might be a reason Tsitsipas is feeling bitter. It has been three months and three Grand Slams since he made it to Week 2 of the tournaments.
And until he gets his rhythm back, that’s bound to stay in his mind.