Jannik Sinner Beats Carlos Alcaraz in a Match Befitting the Stage

WIMBLEDON, England — It was a long weekend full of contrasts at the All England Club.

The first Sunday of the tournament has traditionally been a day of rest at Wimbledon, where they once did not play on Sundays at all.

But time rumbles on, and sometimes rolls right over tradition. Wimbledon has now joined the other Grand Slam tournaments by scheduling matches on every day available.

This year, the added entertainment on the first Sunday was more a pleasure for the senses than the regular fare on Saturday, when Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas put on a mutually bratty display that you could not take your eyes off, frequently for the wrong reasons.

Sunday restored calm and decorum as two other luminous young talents, Jannik Sinner of Italy and Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, took to the most famous showplace in tennis just a couple of hours after the ceremony and parade of champions that commemorated the 100th anniversary of Centre Court.

While Kyrgios swore and berated the chair umpire on No. 1 Court and Tsitsipas knocked a ball angrily into the crowd and tried to nail shots directly at his opponent, Sinner and Alcaraz showed why they were the ones who got trusted with an assignment on Centre Court even though neither had ever played there.

Sinner kept Alcaraz stretching and lunging.Credit…Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

They are talented beyond their years but also classy beyond their years as they demonstrated throughout Sunday’s fourth-round duel, won, 6-1, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-3, by the 20-year-old Sinner over the 19-year-old Alcaraz.

At one point, Sinner slipped and fell hard on his chest while chasing down an Alcaraz drop shot, and Alcaraz came hustling forward to offer him an encouraging fist bump after he rose to his big feet.

Are they the future of men’s tennis? It certainly looks that way, and they have been the present of the game at times, upsetting their elders, winning tour titles and reaching the quarterfinals at Grand Slam tournaments. But there are no guarantees. Injuries, big money and new arrivals can quickly change the pecking order.

“I think what we showed today, it’s a great level of tennis, great attitude from both of us,” Sinner said. “There are still so many other players who are playing incredible tennis. For sure, we are the two youngest at the moment. So let’s see. I don’t know in the future what’s going to happen. I think it’s just great for tennis to have also some new names, new players.”

This has been a most unusual Wimbledon with the No. 1-ranked Daniil Medvedev and his fellow Russians barred from playing because of the war in Ukraine; the new No. 2, Alexander Zverev of Germany, out after major ankle surgery; and three other leading grass-court players — Matteo Berrettini of Italy, Marin Cilic of Croatia and Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain — withdrawing after testing positive for the coronavirus.

There were big windows of opportunity in the draw, and of the 16 players in the men’s fourth round, only two — Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal — had been to even the semifinals of a Grand Slam singles tournament. Sinner will now face Djokovic, the three-time defending champion at Wimbledon, in the quarterfinals after Djokovic defeated Tim van Rijthoven, a late-blooming Dutch wild-card entrant, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, on Sunday night.

Though seeded 10th at Wimbledon, Sinner had never won a match on grass on the main tour until arriving at the All England Club, but it was difficult to understand why as he navigated the grass and generated huge punching power with his groundstrokes against Alcaraz off shots hit from all different kinds of heights. Sinner was the more consistent force on Sunday, but he was also often the one doing the dictating against one of the most explosive movers and hitters in the men’s game.

Sinner, who had lost his only previous tour-level match against Alcaraz, kept him stretching and lunging and turned Alcaraz’s service games into gantlets by repeatedly putting forceful returns at his feet and obliging him to flick half-volleys while leaning back just to stay in the point.

“For me, Jannik played incredibly well,” said Alcaraz, the higher seed at No. 5.

The elastic Alcaraz was often spectacular (he cannot help himself) but also irregular: misfiring repeatedly on his signature drop shots and failing to convert any of his seven break points while Sinner cashed in on four of his 12.

That seemed to be the key statistic. Alcaraz went for too much too often with his groundstrokes. The temptation to end the exchange was understandable. Sinner was setting a torrid pace from the baseline, but it was a testament to Alcaraz’s talent and competitive fire that he turned a potential straight-sets defeat into something much more compelling.

He rallied from 0-40 to hold serve in the first game of the third set and then fought off two match points in the tiebreaker before making the shot of the day at 8-8: a sharply angled forehand half-volley drop shot winner off a full-force backhand pass down the line from Sinner that would have finished off just about any other point.

Alcaraz raised an arm and pumped up the crowd, which did not need much encouragement, and then closed out the set.

But to Sinner’s credit, Alcaraz could not close out the comeback, double-faulting to lose his serve in the fourth game of the fourth set, and despite saving three more match points on his serve in the eighth game, he could not prevent Sinner from serving out the match.

Sinner has made a smart hire this summer, employing Darren Cahill, a former player, veteran coach and ESPN analyst, as a grass-court consultant. Cahill, between his daily commentary duties, is helping him prepare for the matches, and they clearly prepared well for Alcaraz as Sinner handled the big stage and big moment with just a bit more sang-froid.

“I need to improve my mental stability,” said Alcaraz, who is having a breakout season. “Today and in many matches, I’ve had lots of highs and lows, moments of playing well and playing badly. I have to manage the nerves better. It cost me some today.”

So, he conceded, did the Centre Court assignment.

“It’s not so much the court itself, or the silence,” he said, referring to the classic quiet between points.

“It was not so silent,” he said with a grin. “But it’s more knowing all the story behind this court. You are playing and knowing all the historic matches that were played there that were so important to the game. That’s what weighed on me.”

The parade of Wimbledon winners certainly underscored the point on this special Sunday, as retired champions like Billie Jean King and Rod Laver shared the grass with active champions like Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Venus Williams and with champions on hiatus like the surprise guest Roger Federer.

“For me it was a privilege today to go for the first time there in the Centre Court,” Sinner said.

He made the most of it, and together, he and Alcaraz did the grand occasion justice.

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