After waiting two additional days for the proper launch of his US Open title defence, Carlos Alcaraz overcame some uncharacteristic sloppiness in an otherwise straightforward win over Lloyd Harris on Wednesday night to move one step closer to a rare repeat in New York.
The crowd-pleasing Spaniard showed off the bruising power, incomparable all-court movement and signature variety that have carried him to the pinnacle of tennis, saving his best play for the biggest points in a stress-free 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (4) win over the 177th-ranked South African inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I think I played a great match from the beginning until the last ball,” Alcaraz said. “If I have to keep something from the match I’m going to keep the level from the second set.”
The 20-year-old from Spain’s southeastern coast is bidding to become the first back-to-back men’s champion at Flushing Meadows since Roger Federer won five straight from 2004 to 2008 – though doing so will require far cleaner play in the days ahead as the calibre of opposition ramps up.
Alcaraz, the youngest ever No 1 seed in a US Open men’s draw, had taken the court on Monday night for a first-round match against Germany’s Dominik Koepfer, but advanced on an effective walkover after his opponent rolled his ankle on the sixth point of the match and retired not long after.
A stiffer test awaited in Harris, a big server who reached the US Open quarter-finals two years ago and climbed to No 31 in the world before undergoing season-ending wrist surgery last year, and who brimmed with confidence in the early stages. The first two games were tightly contested over nearly 20 minutes with both men saving multiple break points.
But over time Harris was unable to contend with Alcaraz’s educated point construction and extraordinary shotmaking as the Spaniard’s steady pressure eroded his resolve. Alcaraz pounded screaming groundstrokes from the baselines and slid into forehand volleys at the net – sometimes in the same point – making Harris hit multiple winners to settle exchanges where one might normally do.
Alcaraz broke in the fifth game of the opening set before calmly serving it out. Then Harris seemed to unravel early in the second, when he was broken again following consecutive double faults, as his first serve went astray.
From there Harris raised his level in the third – helped along no doubt by 16 of Alcaraz’s 29 unforced errors – getting his teeth into several of the Spaniard’s service games and even breaking the champion at love for 2-4. But the ruthless Alcaraz broke back immediately, then navigated a drama-free tiebreaker to close the show in just under two and a half hours.
“I had to forget [the break],” Alcaraz said. “I did such a bad game. I had to stay focused and wait for my chances in the return. After that break I stayed strong mentally and was able to come back and win in straight sets is really important for me in the first rounds.”
The Spaniard’s emphasis on efficiency is sensible after last year’s title run, when he spent more time on court than any player at any grand slam tournament on record: 23 hours and 40 minutes. But his error-strewn play during stretches of Wednesday’s affair comes off of performances at the Toronto and Cincinnati tune-up events – including eight tiebreak sets out of 23 played – that came in below his stratospheric standard.
Alcaraz, who will surrender the world No 1 ranking he has held since last year’s US Open to Novak Djokovic regardless of his result in New York, advances to a Saturday third-round match against Britain’s Dan Evans, having won both of their previous two meetings.
“We played a few times,” Alcaraz said. “He’s a really tough player. Good serve and volley, good net game. It’s going to be really tough. I will play my best. I will have to return very, very well if I want to win that match. Let’s see how it’s going to be.”