NEW YORK: Carlos Alcaraz found himself in a hint of a predicament 35 minutes into his US Open quarterfinal against Alexander Zverev on Wednesday night.
At 3-all in the first set under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Zverev earned the first break points of the match. An opening. An opportunity to gain an early edge against the defending champion. And then — poof! — gone. Alcaraz dismissed those chances to hold, then gained a break himself in the next game by depositing an overhead that bounced into the stands. One more service hold arrived and, just like that, the set belonged to Alcaraz, as did, eventually, a spot in the semifinals.
The top-seeded Alcaraz pushed aside Zverev 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 and moved a step closer to becoming the first man to win consecutive titles at Flushing Meadows since Roger Federer collected five in a row from 2004-08.
“(If) I could have broken, it could have gone my way. It didn’t,” Zverev said about that key segment in the match’s seventh game. “Even though I lost the first set, I thought it was going to be a competitive match. I thought my level was there. I thought his level was there. I thought it was going to be a fun one.”
But the 12th-seeded Zverev, a 26-year-old German who was the runner-up at the 2020 US Open, said he felt something bothersome in his left hamstring area early in the second set. And because of that, he explained, sprinting and pushing off properly to serve became problematic.
“I didn’t give up,” said Zverev, who left the court for a medical timeout before the third set, “but there is very little you can do, in a way, against Carlos then.”
There have not been many instances in which anyone has managed to slow down Alcaraz, a 20-year-old from Spain, in any real way over the past year-plus of Grand Slam action.
He improved to 24-1 in his past four major tournaments: After the championship in New York 12 months ago, he sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury, made it to the semifinals of the French Open before cramping up in a loss to Novak Djokovic, and added the Wimbledon trophy by beating Djokovic in the final, before the run over these two weeks.
There could be an Alcaraz vs. Djokovic rematch in Sunday’s final.
“Well, obviously it’s closer than (it was at) the beginning of the tournament,” Alcaraz said with a laugh when asked about that possibility.
“It would be great to play a final against Novak here in New York, but ... both of us have really tough semifinals, so let’s see.”
Yes, first things first. Alcaraz will take on 2021 US Open champion Daniil Medvedev in the final four on Friday, while 23-time Slam champ Djokovic faces unseeded Ben Shelton, a 20-year-old American who’s never been this far at a major.
On a sweltering evening, Alcaraz showed off several aspects of his varied game against Zverev.
The powerful forehands that elicit gasps from the crowd. The delicate drop shots. The hammered returns. The all-court speedy coverage. The willingness to try — and ability to succeed on — shots others wouldn’t even consider.
“I try to make the people enjoy watching tennis, watching the matches,” Alcaraz said during his on-court interview.
“I’ve been trying to do different shots that probably the crowd are not used to seeing in the matches. ... That’s what I’m trying — to put a show on,” said Alcaraz, who is 58-6 with six titles in 2023, both tour highs.
There’s also a sense of the moment, knowing when there are points, or games, he absolutely needs to have. On Wednesday, he saved all five break points he faced and converted each of the four he earned in Zverev’s service games.
Alcaraz said he tries to think of those potentially outcome-altering junctures as “normal point; try to do the things that I was doing well. Trying to play my style, trying to (be) aggressive.”
He wound up gathering 11 of 13 points in the stretch that closed the opening set, in part by picking on Zverev’s second serves.
It was a perfect return on a 129 mph (208 kph) first serve that led to a cross-court backhand winner by Alcaraz for the break that tilted the second set his way at 2-1. While Zverev was being tended to by a trainer after that set, Alcaraz whiled away the time by twirling his racket as if it were a baton.