The rivalry between Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner takes center stage during the French Open

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Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz have been the future of men’s tennis for some time now.

Their first meeting, at the Paris Masters in October 2021, provided a glimpse into the highlight tennis the pair produce when sharing a court.

The following year saw a hugely exciting Wimbledon round of 16 match that caught the attention of the casual tennis watcher, followed by an entertaining final in Umag, Croatia, and then the late night/early morning barnstormer at the US Open that announced their tennis brand as the next big thing at the top of the sport. Then came the groundbreaking semi-final of the Miami Open in 2023, and then another classic in Indian Wells in 2024.

They did all this in long shadows. First two, and then increasingly one: those of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Even as they won their first Grand Slam titles, Alcaraz two and Sinner one, both beating Djokovic, the myths resulting from two decades of domination continued to hang over them.

When they entered the red clay of Roland Garros on Friday, that mythos was gone. And in a French Open semi-final, in which Alcaraz won five sets to reach the French Open final, it was he who was one step ahead of his opponent in what appears to be a similar rivalry.

Their semi-final at Roland Garros was another see-saw match. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

With Djokovic expected to miss at least Wimbledon after knee surgery, suddenly this is not just a rivalry in men’s tennis, but also the rivalry in men’s tennis. They are by far the two best (fit) players, with Sinner set to be anointed world number 1 in a few days and Alcaraz hot on the heels of the stricken Djokovic, ready to overtake him as world number 2.

This is one of those tennis quirks: the match that feels like a final, but isn’t, because of the way the draw was made. On the other side of the draw, Casper Ruud faces Alexander Zverev – Ruud, two-time finalist of the French Open and Zverev, the form player of recent months – but Sinner and Alcaraz have been operating at a different level over the past year or so (longer, in the case of Alcaraz).

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The rivalry is still in its infancy, but there are already a few things to assess. It should be close, with both men winning four of their first eight matches against each other, before Alcaraz triumphed 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 at Roland Garros to advance to the French Open. last.

This is not like the early stages of the rivalry between Roger Federer and Nadal, which began with the latter winning six of their first seven meetings, or that between two of the best women’s players in the world, with Iga Swiatek leading Coco Gauff. 11-1 in their head-to-head matchup.

Alcaraz Sinner clay close scaled

Carlos Alcaraz had the upper hand and took a 5-4 lead in the head-to-head confrontation. (Tim Goode/Getty Images)

There also doesn’t seem to be a superficial problem between one player and another. Alcaraz has victories on indoor and outdoor hard, Sinner on outdoor hard, grass and gravel. But they have only met once on those last two surfaces and Alcaraz became Wimbledon champion in 2023 after four matches at SW19 the year before, also winning at Queen’s. The rivalry on clay should also be close if Alcaraz can emulate what he did on the slow hard courts of Indian Wells, using his ability to vary spin, speed and depth to throw Sinner off the metronomic, pounding consistency that is so characteristic of his career. basic tennis.

This was ultimately how things played out on Friday, with Alcaraz’s victory making it one win apiece on clay. Sinner led two sets to one, but some mesmerizing lobs and drop shots, coupled with impossible-looking winners from the baseline, eventually turned the match in Alcaraz’s favor.

The closeness in their mutual confrontation is reflected by the closeness of their relationship. Off the court they are not best friends – few tennis players interact with each other – but they get along very well and enjoy playing against each other. How long that will last as they face each other down the line and the stakes get higher is another question, and it was interesting to see the different dynamics before Friday’s match compared to how friendly they were together while they waited to enter the court before that Indian. Wells semi-final.

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On that occasion they greeted each other as if they were meeting at a cocktail party; on Friday in the tunnel before going to Chatrier, the mood was very different. There was a handshake, followed by an expression as serious as Alcaraz, and then both men found their places and began going through their routines.

This was strictly business. Previously, some of their encounters had an almost exhibition feel.

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Carlos Alcaraz cheered on his rival after the match. (Tim Goode/Getty Images)

After that first meeting at the Paris Masters, a defeated Sinner told Alcaraz: β€œI hope we play a few more times.” A beaming Alcaraz replied: β€œYes, yes, yes, definitely.”

Something happens when they play against each other: there is an electricity and a chemistry that makes both players elevate each other’s play. There was a lovely moment in the Indian Wells semi-final in March when, after a stunning rally that Sinner somehow won, the pair looked at each other and laughed. It was as if they were saying, “Would you like to watch what we just did?” It, and other on-field interactions the pair have had, give the feeling you sometimes get in life when you meet a kindred spirit. Wait, you like that band too? Do you also support that team? You can also sprint at full speed and then somehow shoot off an oblique crosscourt with the forehand?

β€œI’m already pretty fast, and he’s a lot faster than me,” Sinner has said of Alcaraz, sounding like someone who is excited to have finally met his match.

This mutual improvement was a hallmark of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic triumvirate. Nadal dominated Federer, so Federer figured out how to beat him. Nadal has discovered grass. Djokovic discovered clay. Their finals, some of the best matches men’s tennis has ever seen, demonstrated this in real time, pushing each other to even greater heights and creating a closed training camp that took them further and further from the court below.

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Time will tell if the rivalry will take each player to greater heights (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Who knows if Alcaraz and Sinner will retain their fondness for each other as the rivalry becomes less even, either in head-to-head competition, in the number of Grand Slams won, or both.

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They seem to genuinely enjoy the way the other raises their game. This isn’t like Federer admitting in the 2018 documentary Strokes of Genius that, rather than welcoming the threat Nadal posed when he burst onto the scene, he was much happier winning major titles virtually unopposed, thank you very much.

It’s hard to see Sinner or Alcaraz darting away from the other and there are arguments to be made where both have the upper hand. Alcaraz is better at adjusting things on the surface, while Sinner generally plays his own game and makes the surface almost irrelevant. This almost always works against pretty much everyone except Alcaraz and Djokovic, and it didn’t work as well in Paris, with Alcaraz’s greater variety making the difference.

In Sinner’s favor is his momentum, which, while having him under control, has taken him past Alcaraz to claim the No. 1 spot as of Monday, as Alcaraz predicted would happen in November at the ATP Finals, where Sinner reached the final. But now Alcaraz is the one who has reached another Grand Slam final and is on course to have won three out of four with Sinner on one.

It’s tempting to try to say that Friday’s game was somehow definitive or hugely revelatory, but that would be going too far.

Sinner won more points in the match, but Alcaraz stepped up when it mattered. We need a much larger sample size to predict where this rivalry might end up, and there’s a level of pressure that comes with being the flag-bearing rivalry for a sport, as Alcaraz and Sinner suddenly are.

On Friday they sometimes reached expected heights; at others there was understandable tension – most clearly evident in the cramps that Sinner suffered in the third set, which Alcaraz said he also suffered from.

Alcaraz said before Friday’s meeting that “it’s the game everyone wants to watch.”

While Djokovic recovers, things promise to stay that way for a while.

(Top photo: Dan Istitene / Getty Images)

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