Tennis scenarios don’t get much grimmer than the one that Jannik Sinner found himself in this past Sunday. He prepared to serve while down a set, 0-1, and 0-40, on clay, against Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old who has scrawled his name all over this men’s season, here playing his sixth final of the year. Carlitos had taken many souls on his favorite surface, with a 27-3 clay record in 2022 to show for it. But that moment turned out to be the inflection point for that entire Croatia Open final. Crawling out of that 0-40 hole, Sinner won 12 of the next 13 games, to win the championship 6-7(5), 6-1, 6-1.
Alcaraz is still the most exciting prospect in tennis, but he has lost the sheen of outright invincibility he enjoyed this spring, when he sliced through the hierarchy as convincingly as any kid since Rafael Nadal. Back then he seemed to be outpacing the best players on tour—let alone his own age cohort—setting a trajectory that looked almost rival-proof. He’d beaten Sinner in both meetings in 2021, once at a Challenger and once at the Paris Masters. But Sinner has since emerged as the rival that once seemed unlikely: 21 months older, a little bigger and slower, more than capable of trading blows from the baseline, lacing blurry winners on the run, padding out the highlight reel.
While he lacks the dynamic range of Alcaraz—that ability to toggle between the softest drop shot and the heaviest forehand—there’s a brutal efficiency to Sinner’s tennis when he’s on. No one this season has absorbed the powerful attacks of Alcaraz as comfortably as a locked-in Sinner, whose groundstroke technique is a little less noisy, a little more straightforward than his foil’s. The quality and consistency of contact between the tennis ball and the sweetest spot on Sinner’s strings is savant-like stuff. While Alcaraz receded in sets two and three, spilling errors and possibly feeling the right ankle he’d re-tweaked in his previous match, Sinner’s hitting just got sweeter and sweeter. The best exchanges between these two have an unmistakable iron-sharpening-iron quality, as each player dishes out something the other isn’t used to dealing with and forces him to go bolder:
It’s Sinner’s second win over Alcaraz in the span of a month; the last one was an even more entertaining Wimbledon fourth-round. One theme has held steady across both matches. Sinner defended all nine break points in their Croatia Open final. And going back to Wimbledon, across the past seven sets they’ve played, Carlos hasn’t managed to break Jannik once in 33 service games, which might be more a fluke than a specific testament to Sinner’s serve, but is worth keeping an eye on. Another burgeoning trend? Alcaraz’s ethnic matchup issues:
Alcaraz had won his first five finals on tour. Two weekends ago, he lost his first, to another promising 20-year-old Italian, Lorenzo Musetti, born in Tuscany. Sunday’s loss to Sinner, who hails from South Tyrol, makes it two in a row. The man can beat Nadal and Djokovic in consecutive matches, but perhaps not a foe armed with a Parmesan cheese sponsorship.