They are friends who get by in different languages, but there was no misinterpretation of the tennis alchemy between Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner on Center Court at Wimbledon on Sunday. It was full of bubbling promises and good summer vibes – even though it took them two hours to pop the cork.
It wasn’t until Alcaraz emerged from an extended flat spot to force and win a tiebreak that took them to a fourth set that the day’s highly anticipated game began to live up to expectations.
“They can dominate in the future,” Feliciano Lopez had said beforehand of the two youngest players left in the men’s draw, “so it’s one of the best games we could have.” It was certainly a close match, with flashes of genius and a few twists in the plot, but it didn’t match López’s billing.
If we shred the script further, it wouldn’t be favorite Alcaraz – the new Rafa Nadal – who triumphed, but 20-year-old Sinner: 6-1, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-3 in three hours and 35 minutes. The Italian, who defeated Andy Murray’s conqueror John Isner in the previous round at the height of his servant powers, will happily enter his first slam quarterfinal, albeit a little tired.
He could have completed this in three sets if he had stayed focused. Sinner – whose first win on grass was here in the opening round – will need all his physical and psychological energy on Tuesday against the defending six-time champion, Novak Djokovic, who survived some tricky moments to beat great Dutch wildcard Tim van Rijthoven, who won 20. aces on him but returned free points with interest via 53 unforced errors.
Djokovic, who looked tired at times, won 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 in two hours and 37 minutes under the roof (beating the 11pm curfew by 20 minutes).
Sinner played against Djokovic once and lost in two sets in Monte Carlo last year, but he is a different player now, even on grass. He said of the prospect of playing him again: “He is playing very, very well. I will do my best. That’s the minimum I can do. Just enjoy every moment out there.”
Alcaraz – at 19 the youngest man to reach the fourth round since Bernard Tomic (remember him?) 11 years ago – gave Sinner a two-set start and, but for some glorious forehands, huge serves and a fight back in the fourth , fell short of his best.
On the seventh day of the Championships, in the Center Court’s 100th year, their youthful exuberance filled the famous Old Court – certainly more joyfully than Cliff Richard’s faltering rendition of Summer Holiday in the nostalgic love affair that preceded tennis. Old rockers should actually stay home more often.
While both were as green as the grass – six surface appearances for Alcaraz, eight for Sinner – the Spaniard’s bigger game seemed suited to them. His first ace of nine on Sunday was his 43rd for the tournament and he has knocked them down at speeds of up to 235 mph. That’s some serious firepower.
Sinner responded with high-quality geography of the court, mixing it short and long, and breaking first. Its lateral movement on grass – at 2,80 m – was a revelation, as if he had played on it all his life. (His skiing background probably helped.) Sinner often knocked Alcaraz off balance and broke again, taking the first set with an ace, in just over half an hour.
A rocket of a return painting the baseline gave Sinner a break at the start of the second, but Alcaraz finally found some rhythm. Both hit 90mph-plus bases, Sinner with concern, Alcaraz with mounting desperation. After an hour and 20 minutes, he was down two sets and was struggling.
Alcaraz needed discipline as well as inspiration, but these were scarce as he struggled in the third set. A failed forehand from the middle of the lane in the seventh game was memorably awful. However, he came back hard to force a tie-break and rallied for 15 shots to lead 3-2 en route to three set points. Sinner saved two on his own serve and the third with a 160 kph forehand for 6-6.
Alcaraz hit long to hand Sinner’s match point on his own serve, but Sinner dumped a tight backhand before getting a second chance to round it off. He went for glory and hit a forehand into the highest point of the net. Then some Spanish magic: a neat, clipped half volley winner from behind his feet for 9-8. A Sinner forehand went long – and they went into a fourth set. Finally we had a match of coherence.
Or we? Just as Alcaraz appeared to be taking the lead, Sinner broke for 3-1 and nervously held out from 0-40 to 4-1. Alcaraz saved five match points on his own serve at 2-5, but could do nothing about the sixth, as Sinner thrashed an eventual winner.
Before playing, they talked about their fledgling friendship, Sinner insisted they speak to each other in a mix of Spanish and Italian, and Alcaraz protested that his Italian is still in its infancy. However, both are scholars in a shared language without words. It will be a joy to see them talking on those terms for years to come – perhaps more eloquently than on Sundays.
As tennis ended late in the evening, the All England Club released a list of players fined for breaking the code, including, unsurprisingly, $10,000 for Stefanos Tsitsipas and $4,000 for Nick Kyrgios after their tantrum-filled match. on Saturday night. Those fines were about right.