US Open 2023: Defending champ Alcaraz returns as a favorite of the fans, but not of the oddsmakers

NEW YORK (AP) — Carlos Alcaraz wishes he could go a little more unnoticed as he tries to move around the home of the U.S. Open.

That’s not possible, of course. New York is the last place to find quiet when you’re the star of the show, and even at just 20 years old, it appears the Spaniard is already that in tennis.

He may not be the favorite of the oddsmakers despite being the defending champion — Novak Djokovic is back, after all — but he certainly seems to be a popular choice among fans.

They will have to wait one more day to watch him. Alcaraz isn’t on the schedule Monday for the first day of play, when top-ranked Iga Swiatek opens her title defense in the afternoon and both 19-year-old Coco Gauff and Djokovic play at night.

Alcaraz is scheduled to play Dominik Koepfer on Tuesday night, providing an extra day to set aside the distractions and hype that were already starting even before he won the title last year and have snowballed since.

“Well, my life changed a lot, a lot,” Alcaraz said this week with a smile. “Probably it’s a different life, talking about the way that I’m more, let’s say, famous. A lot of people are starting to know my name after the U.S. Open last year, for example.”

His victory over Casper Ruud made Alcaraz the first teenager to win the U.S. Open men’s title since Pete Sampras in 1990. Sampras, though, didn’t immediately shoot to stardom, not with John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors still around and Andre Agassi having already burst onto the scene.

But with Roger Federer retired and countryman Rafael Nadal sidelined since January because of injuries, Alcaraz has quickly picked up many of their fans along with his own, a fact he quickly discovered when he returned to New York and noticed how many people recognized him when he went to restaurants or golf courses.

“Sometimes I like it; sometimes no,” Alcaraz said. “Sometimes you want to feel like a normal guy, to walk normally. ... Yeah, I wish some days to be someone not recognized at all. But it’s going to be impossible. I have to enjoy that part as well. But sometimes it makes difficult.”

But he’s clearly enjoying it. He played a point with NBA star Jimmy Butler during a charity event to raise money for humanitarian relief in Ukraine, then on Arthur Ashe Kids' Day booted a goal with an oversized tennis ball and teamed with Swiatek to win a soccer volleyball point.

Still, it’s his real tennis that spectators can’t wait to see. Alcaraz’s crowd-pleasing style, the huge whacks with his forehand and deft touch on his drop shots, had Djokovic and McEnroe marveling right along with everyone else.

“This guy is amazing. Electric,” said McEnroe, now an ESPN analyst. He called Alcaraz “the most complete 20-year-old I’ve ever seen, and that includes Novak and Roger and Rafa.”

That’s led Alcaraz to a tour-high 53 wins this season and six titles, including a second major trophy when he edged Djokovic at Wimbledon. He is coming off a loss, though, beaten by Djokovic in a Cincinnati final that went three sets and nearly four hours.

That victory, along with his men’s-record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, are likely the reasons Djokovic is the tournament favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. He and Alcaraz have met in the last two Grand Slam tournaments, and though they couldn’t do it in New York until the Sept. 10 final, the 36-year-old from Serbia won’t wait long to check out his new rival.

“He’s definitely one of the best players in the world the last couple years,” Djokovic said. “Sure, there’s always an eye that follows him from my team, from any other team. I know that the same goes for me, probably.”


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