Matteo Arnaldi, an unheralded Italian player, was having a lovely time in New York, knocking off one opponent after another on his way to the fourth round at the U.S. Open.
One, Arthur Fils of France, is expected to become one of the top players of the next decade. Another, Cameron Norrie, the 16th seed, has been among the better players of the past two years. Those wins earned him a date on Monday with Carlos Alcaraz, the defending champion and world No. 1, in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“A good challenge,” Arnaldi, 22, who grew up in the shadow of other Italians his age, such as Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti, said ahead of the match.
His coach, Alessandro Petrone, thought so, too.
“I think tomorrow will be not so easy,” Petrone said Sunday afternoon as he tried to come up with a game plan for taking on Alcaraz.
Both were right. It took Alcaraz 1 hour 57 minutes to take apart Arnaldi. He has dropped just one set in four matches.
None of this is particularly surprising. Alcaraz has won two of the past four Grand Slam events and has played in only three of them, having missed the Australian Open with a pulled hamstring.
But this is the first time he has had to defend one of the biggest titles in the sport, a challenge that some top players can struggle with. Iga Swiatek, the women’s defending champion, lost Sunday night, a defeat that will cost her the No. 1 ranking when the new rankings are released next week.
Alcaraz said Monday that he had tried to put thoughts of defending a title out of his head.
“All the pressure that people put on you, on the defending champions, I just delete it and focus on my own game,” Alcaraz said.
Alcaraz’s match Saturday against Dan Evans of Britain, long a favorite of tennis sophisticates because his style is smooth and varied, was a shotmaker’s delight. The two players put on a show, impressing themselves and others with long rallies, filled with touch and power. There were plenty of big winners hit from behind the baseline and drop shots feathered to within inches of the net.
This is the way Alcaraz likes it best. Massive video boards loom high above Arthur Ashe Stadium. Alcaraz loves to watch matches on television when he isn’t on the court, though he also likes watching when he is on the court as well.
If he has played a particularly exceptional shot, one that elicits a loud and lusty roar from the crowd — and this happens a lot — as soon as the point is over, his eyes gaze skyward.
“I love to see it again,” he said Monday through that broad smile.
The stakes rise each day, but so far one of the secrets of Alcaraz’s success is that tennis has remained something of a hoot.
His workday over by early evening, he had the luxury of watching the match between his upcoming quarterfinal opponent, either Sinner or Alexander Zverev of Germany.
His five-set quarterfinal match against Sinner at the U.S. Open last year ended at nearly 3 a.m.
“Going to be a really tough quarterfinal,” Alcaraz said.