The Kids Are Alright

The second set of tonight’s U.S. Open quarterfinal between Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz was almost the length of a short movie, a hallucinatory battle of highlight-reel shots and physics-defying gets. Sinner scored the first break at 1-all with a mindblowing point: he rained a return onto Alcaraz’s baseline, but his 19-year-old opponent survived the attack, gradually turning the balance of the rally in his favor, then cranking an angled crosscourt forehand. Sinner, on the dead run, somehow pulverized the ball back crosscourt with a brutal right arm that might as well have been propelled by vengeful angels. It was almost like his racket strings had wrapped around the ball like one of those scoopy-catchy toys, ensnaring the ball before hurling it with maximum strength in the direction that it came from. Juan Martín del Potro was in attendance, and he might have shed a tear at this shot. Alcaraz, for all his demonic speed, barely moved for the ball.

Sinner held serve pretty comfortably until 5-4, looking likely to serve out the set to even the match, Alcaraz having won the opener 6-3. But Alcaraz broke, then held at love in about 2.5 seconds, then went up love-40 on Sinner’s serve. It was a startling turnaround, brutal in how abrupt it had been, and it was hard to imagine anyone being capable of regaining their footing on a rug pulled so sharply. Sinner, whose serve is generally not one of his biggest strengths, suddenly found a few shattering unreturnable deliveries. At ad-in, he seemed to have escaped the danger. Then Alcaraz replied to a forehand blast from on top of the net with a miraculous behind-the-back shot; no one in their right mind would have attempted it, but immediately after racket hit ball, it was obvious Alcaraz had somehow sent the ball low and with pace to Sinner’s feet, setting him up to win the point one shot later with a backhand pass. The trick shot sent fans into a frenzy, drawing tweets like this:

If it seems like I’m going on and on about this set, that’s because this was what the stanza felt like: a never-ending highlight reel in which each insane shot looked certain to prove decisive until the next proved it irrelevant. In the end, Sinner took a tense tiebreak 9-7 — midway through, Darren Cahill rested his head on his neighbor in Sinner’s box — Alcaraz had missed a putaway forehand on the one set point Sinner hadn’t saved with a bone-crushing serve.

When a best-of-five match stands at one set all after two hours and 10 minutes, there’s usually a sense of heaviness. Not dread, not by any means, but a bit of wariness — put your feet up, make some popcorn, because we’re going to be here for a while. In this match, though, everything felt light to me. Neither had made a major semifinal in 2022 (or ever, for that matter), so the match would be a hallmark win for one and a courageous loss for the other. At 19 and 21, Alcaraz and Sinner were at no risk of suffering a career-defining defeat. Their young legs could presumably take another couple hours of punishment, and their arms? Well, Alcaraz hit a forehand at 107 mph early in the third set.

*****

“The future of tennis” is a phrase that has been thrown around with regards to the ATP for more than a decade. Each time we’ve thought the dominance of the Big Four was waning, though, someone in that vaunted quartet stepped up to fill the position of their faltering brethren. Lately it has been Djokovic and Nadal tearing up the world, sharing a gaudy 36 of the last 50 major titles between them. They have turned NextGen after NextGen into LostGen. They are probably not even finished with their cruel reign, despite the fact that they are in their mid-thirties.

There are many reasons, though, to think that Alcaraz and Sinner are the successors. For one, age finally is settling into Djokovic and Nadal’s performances, as are other factors. Djokovic is not vaccinated, ruling him out of several big tournaments, including this U.S. Open. Without the motivation of week-to-week competitive play and months-long breaks, you have to wonder how much more Gumby he has in him for when he does take the court. Nadal won two majors this year, but also dealt with a stress fracture in his rib, a flare-up of his chronic foot injury, and an ab tear, all of which forced him off the tour for considerable amounts of time. He has weathered an astonishing number of injuries in his long career, but one senses he is finally being worn down.

And it’s not just that — Sinner and Alcaraz have serious game. Time after time tonight, they sent returns flaring onto the opposite baseline, often after very good serves. Their ballstriking ability sends the fuzzy yellow thing flying this way and that at truly alarming speeds, yet their movement is dynamic enough (particularly in Alcaraz’s case) to keep nearly anything in play.

This match was of two phases, the first being defined by Sinner playing the big points better than Alcaraz. The 21-year-old saved a trio of set points in the second with massive serves. He bunted a backhand return winner to seal the set himself. In the third, he twice came back from a set down, then played a peerless tiebreak. But Alcaraz had a set point for a two-set lead on which Sinner didn’t hit a mammoth serve; he had a chance to put away a forehand anywhere on the right side of the court and instead it slammed into the net. He netted an easy forehand at 7-all in the tiebreak. He couldn’t serve out the third set and put up a tiebreak performance that Sinner trampled as an elephant might a toothpick.

Sinner, by comparison, was cool as ice. Alcaraz played so well earlier this year that many of us started projecting that he wouldn’t have a rival equal to him during his prime years, never mind that those years could be half a decade off. And I did still think Alcaraz was better than Sinner, even when it looked like Sinner would win the match; the Spaniard’s speed and forehand and return of serve are irresistible. But since his first meeting with Alcaraz at the end of last year, Sinner has been making that case less and less persuasive with each edition of the rivalry, from calmly outplaying Alcaraz at Wimbledon to outlasting him in Umag to taking him to the brink here in New York.

When Alcaraz broke out, many players accepted his rise with almost passive recognition of his talent. He was so good that others almost shied away. Stefanos Tsitsipas has lost to him three straight times. Alexander Zverev got absolutely cooked by Alcaraz in the Madrid final, then promptly said the young Spaniard, then a newcomer to the top ten, was the best player in the world. Sinner has been different from the start, insisting with his stern groundstrokes that if Alcaraz was the golden boy destined for stardom, Sinner would make his path to the top as miserable as possible, usurping him if necessary. When he went up a break early in the fourth set, Sinner looked as close to surpassing Alcaraz in terms of threat level as he had since Alcaraz rose to prominence.

But then came the second phase of the match. Alcaraz has shown a jarring affinity for astonishing comebacks this season. Not all of them have resulted in wins; in fact, very few have: despite huge pushes from way behind in the score, Alcaraz lost to Berrettini in Melbourne, Zverev in Paris, Sinner in London, and Musetti in Hamburg. Here, Alcaraz again seemed unbothered by the thought of a loss. He saved a match point with a sharp backhand return, riding the momentum to the 7-5 comeback set he barely missed out on in the second stanza.

Alcaraz after winning the fourth set. Screenshot: U.S. Open

In the fifth, Alcaraz went down a break at 3-2, and he immediately broke back. When Sinner won an epic rally — he hit a backhand overhead smash, then anticipated an Alcaraz putaway to club a forehand winner into the open court — Alcaraz was unimpressed, quickly forcing an error with another good backhand return. Serving for the match, he defended well on the opening point. He sliced an ace out wide at 15-all. And he painted the service line with a 128 mph body serve to seal the deal.

This match has so many implications for the future it’s hard to know where to start. It was a lovely indicator that this young rivalry’s promise is boundless. For Sinner, it was as brave — and, likely, as painful — as a loss can get. For Frances Tiafoe, it was the most fun he’s ever had with tennis while not playing himself. But more than anything, it was a glorious reinforcement of all Alcaraz’s freakish talent. Who knows how far he will go, but I haven’t seen a limiting factor yet. He is incredible.

*****

In the middle of the third set, Sinner serving and Alcaraz up a break at 4-2, they played an utterly frantic point, Alcaraz nearly passing Sinner at net before having to backtrack for an angled dink and sprinting towards the baseline in a hopeless (but enchantingly fast) dash and- tell you what, just watch the rally yourself.

Alcaraz’s movement is one of his biggest assets, but sometimes it’s almost excessively explosive. Here, he had no chance to get to Sinner’s final shot (let’s be honest, anything short of a sports car equipped with a robotic arm had no chance), but he ran like hell for it anyway, and the fury of his movement forced him off his feet. As Carlos Alcaraz lay there on the ground not in defeat but in negotiation with his own abilities, the camera lingered on his face for a moment, his mouth expressionless, eyes staring towards the roof of the biggest tennis stadium in the world.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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