The teenager’s sensational forehand shot as he moved sideways on the baseline sent the ball streaming into the deuce court for a winner even as Alex de Minaur, who thought he had just hit match point, came forward to the net. It’s never over till it’s over, in tennis as in baseball.
Carlos Alcaraz Garfia was still a match point down. De Minaur was serving at 6-5 and 40-15 when this thrilling sequence began. When it ended, they were even and going into a tiebreak, and the 18-year-old phenom had the screaming fans in the stands of the Pista Rafa Nadal on their feet. He was unstoppable.
As he has been. All year. It is called a streak.
Whether Alcaraz–de Minaur at the Barcelona Open semifinal was the match of the year remains to be seen; it probably will be up there with several other contenders, most if not all of them involving the new face of Spanish tennis, who went on to handily trounce Pablo Carreño Busta in an anti-climatic final. Alcaraz plays with the passion of his idol Rafa Nadal — champion at Barcelona 12 times, but away this year due to a rib fracture sustained a month ago at Indian Wells, where he lost in the final to Taylor Fritz.
The tennis tour thus got off to a roaring 2023. As if to make up for the pandemic-plagued years of the decade, with players flying across oceans into bubbles and lockdowns to play in empty stadia, the sport is packing the fans in and the young stars are wowing them even as the old guard fades. Roger Federer, if he does not sit out the whole year, will play his first match of the year at Wimbledon — and some rumors from his camp suggest his knee issues will force him to skip that too, though it is his favorite, in which case, frankly, he may as well pass on New York and the U.S. Open as well and maximize his chances for a comeback of comebacks in 2023.
Nadal has his chest problem, as noted, but so far his team is saying he will be ready for Roland Garros. Novak Djokovic is back after his Australian Open travails (he was prevented from playing and deported from Australia for being unvaccinated for COVID, despite assurances from Tennis Australia that he would get a medical exemption, as others did), but if he is looking good, he is not looking strong. At the Serbia Open during the same week, the amazing young Carlos was starring in Barcelona, he did well until the final when he met another hot young player, Andrey Rublev. The match was competitive for two sets, then Djokovic, who founded this tournament and has won it twice, collapsed, letting Rublev cruise to 6-0 for the match and the trophy.
The women’s tour has had a similar plotline. Serena and Venus Williams have been absent, Maria Sharapova got married and is expecting, Kim Clijsters retired again, the spunky, spirited, and lively French damozel, Alizé Cornet, trading her racquet for a typewriter, is writing novels instead of playing matches, and the lass whom we expected to be the face of tennis for the next 15 years, Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, retired (after winning the Australian Open) at the ripe old age of 26 and is turning to professional golf (she was in professional cricket before becoming tennis’ No. 1). The field seemed wide open.
But it was not. Iga Świątek, the girl from the Warsaw ’burbs, took Barty’s No. 1 rank and has kept it with the loss of only one set over two dozen matches and several trophies, including the rare Sunshine Double (Indian Wells and the Miami Open in the same year). The lost set came in the semis of the Stuttgart Open last week; as with the men at Barcelona, it seems the semis were the thrilling moments and the finals merely the official stamp. Świątek very nearly lost to Ludmilla Samsonova, coming back in the second set after losing the first and battling through a tight third. She then crushed defending champion Aryna Sabalenka in the final, leaving her stunned as she kept shooting winners past her to either corner. She got the Porsche (red) and the trophy.
She was gracious as she played first a Russian and then a Belarusian, whom she views as friends and rivals, not enemies; she does not confuse them with the Russia-Ukraine horror, knowing her support for Ukraine, which has been quite vocal, has nothing to do with who she meets on the courts. The toffs at Wimbledon, that is to say the All England Lawn Tennis Club, should take note. They are banning Russian and Belarusian players from the Championships, which is the Kentucky Derby or the Daytona 500 or the Augusta Masters of tennis, which is to say young Rublev, Sabalenka, Samsonova, and many others — because of their skin color, I mean their birthplaces. It is not going to change the course of the war. It is going to distract from clear thinking on how to end it without further death and destruction.
As the British say, what rot. It is true, as the apologists for the British government (which reportedly pressured the Club in this matter) are saying, the majors banned German and Japanese players for a few years after World War II. So that was rotten too, though, in all sincerity, I think we can see the circumstances were more understandable.
It still meant, to take the best-known case of banning, that Gottfried von Cramm, the finest German player of the 1930s, friend of Don Budge and an irreproachable anti-Nazi, could not get a visa to enter the U.S. The State Department’s excuse was that he was an ex-convict. The reason he was an ex-con was that the Nazis had thrown him in prison in 1938 and very nearly murdered him. They did not, due to his international support and the personal intervention of the king of Sweden. When he got out, he enlisted in the army as a private — von Cramms fight in Germany’s wars, no matter the regime — and survived wounds on the eastern front. Eventually he made it back home, where he restored the family fortune — and played on the tour for a few more years.
At least in free countries, minds can change and policies with them. Wimbledon begins June 27.
Weak research and feckless sources might be blamed for inexcusable errors in the article on the Stuttgart and Barcelona tournaments yesterday (above), but that would be the easy way. The fault lies entirely in our stars and on our consciences. Gottfried von Cramm, though he fought on the eastern front during World War II, did not participate in the Battle of Stalingrad. We confused him with his friend and doubles partner Heinrich (“Henner”) Henkel, who died from wounds sustained there; neither was in a Soviet POW camp.