Can Jannik Sinner Emerge From The Enormous Shadow Of Carlos Alcaraz?

Jannik Sinner in action at the ATP Barcelona Open.
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Jannik Sinner would not be human if he did not occasionally feel like the John the Baptist to Carlos Alcaraz’s Jesus, or, to use less potentially heretical imagery, The Stone Roses to Alcaraz’s Oasis. That is to say that although the 20-year-old Italian prodigy broke through earlier than the 19-year-old Spaniard and even reached the world top 10 ahead of him, the latter has almost completely overshadowed the former this year. However, over the next week at Roland Garros, starting tomorrow, Sinner has the chance to remind everyone that men’s tennis potentially has two future greats in its junior ranks and not just one.

Sinner’s Early Success

Such has been Carlos Alcaraz’s incredible season that it is easy to forget that it was Sinner who first threatened to take men’s tennis by storm. Ever since Sinner won the Next Gen Finals at the end of 2019 (i.e. in that long-ago, almost mythical time before the pandemic), he has looked like a potential future Grand Slam champion. No less an expert than Chris Kermode, the former ATP Chairman, wondered whether he had ever seen anyone hit a tennis ball harder than Sinner when he watched the then 18-year-old Italian win the Next Gen Finals in Milan. Even more impressively, Sinner allied that incredible power with what appeared to be unassailable mental strength, indeed almost zen-like calm, as he nonchalantly played football (or at least keepy-uppy) in the dressing room before each match.

Over the next 18 months or so, Sinner almost completely justified all the outlandish claims that were being made about him, as he apparently effortlessly climbed the world rankings. He also achieved considerable success at a Major, reaching the quarterfinals of the French Open on his debut in 2020, where he competed brilliantly for the first set against eventual winner Rafael Nadal, taking it to a tie-break, before losing in straight sets. And before 2020 was over, he had won his first ATP title, the Sofia Open, triumphing in a superb three-set final against Canada’s Vasek Pospisil. He seemed set fair for the future, starting with 2021.

In many ways, 2021 was also successful for Sinner, as he reached his first ATP Masters Final in Miami, losing to Hubert Hurkacz, and continued to climb the rankings. Indeed, by the end of the year he was in the world’s top 10 and reached, albeit as a late injury replacement, the end-of-season ATP Finals in Turin, completing an astonishing rise, in just two years, from Next Gen Finals winner to ATP Finals contender. And if he couldn’t quite get out of the first-round group, that was largely because he had to play Novak Djokovic at the end of his “Super-Season,” during which the Serb won three Majors and reached the final of a fourth, as well as the Olympic Singles Final.

Enter Alcaraz

However, there were warning signs in the middle of 2021 that Sinner would not have things all his own way as he sought to become the youngest player to compete with The Big Three of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, and maybe even succeed them. In particular, there was the emergence halfway through last year of Carlos Alcaraz, who was only a year younger than the Italian but almost immediately appeared to be far older and more experienced than him in terms of physical and even mental strength. The two had already met once before early in their career, a match that Alcaraz had won, but the real turning-point in their trajectories came in the final Masters event of 2021, in Paris, when Alcaraz won relatively easily in straight sets and for the first time prompted doubts that Sinner might not be destined for the top of men’s tennis after all.

Those doubts have only grown and indeed intensified this year. While Alcaraz has suggested that he and not Federer is now a member of The Big Three, with his remarkable run of tournament wins in Rio, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid, Sinner has, by comparison, struggled somewhat for the first time in his career. In particular, he has suggested that his own physical and mental strength may not be quite as formidable as those of Alcaraz, as he had to withdraw from Miami with a stomach injury (and then had to watch Alcaraz win the tournament) and then underperformed, at least in comparison to Alcaraz, on the European clay court circuit in the run-up to Roland Garros. It was perhaps significant that his best performance in those warm-up events came in Rome, not only on home soil but in the absence of Alcaraz, who had withdrawn from the Italian Masters event after winning in Madrid.

Now, as Roland Garros approaches its second weekend, all the talk in men’s tennis is that it is Alcaraz, not Sinner, who is the heir apparent to Nadal and Djokovic. Indeed, in the most outstanding of all his outstanding achievements this year, Alcaraz beat both Nadal and Djokovic on consecutive days on clay in Madrid, something that no man has ever done before. By contrast, Sinner is yet to beat either Nadal or Djokovic, let alone beat them both within 24 hours.

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Alcaraz Overshadows Everyone, Not Just Jannik Sinner

The truth is that at the moment Alcaraz overshadows almost everyone in men’s tennis, especially all the young players, and not just Sinner. After nearly two decades of domination of the sport by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, who have seen off successive generations of younger players who just could not compete with them at the Majors, there has been a kind of build-up, or logjam, of young talent behind them. The new starlets include Sinner, his fellow Italian Lorenzo Musetti, the brilliant Scandinavians Casper Ruud and Holger Rune, the young Argentinian Sebastian Baez (who is certainly his country’s finest player since Diego Schwarzman and potentially its finest since Juan Martin del Potro) and even a cohort of young Americans, including Sebastian Korda and Taylor Fritz, who could all potentially challenge for and even win Grand Slam titles in the future. Nevertheless, Alcaraz has already done enough to show that he is undoubtedly first among equals, and perhaps the man to deny many of the others the chance to win Majors in the future.

But Sinner Has A Chance This Week In Paris To Go Deep

Nevertheless, Sinner has a chance to go deep this week in Paris and remind everyone of his own undoubted merits. He is benefiting from a relatively benign draw, having beaten America’s Bjorn Fratangelo in straight sets in the first round and then defeated Spain’s Roberto Carballés Baena, a clay-court specialist (like most of his countrymen), in the second round in four sets, albeit after losing the first set. And in the third round this weekend, he will play another American, Mackenzie McDonald, in what looks like an eminently winnable match for the Italian.

Even if the draw will undoubtedly get harder thereon in, with Sinner potentially meeting Andrey Rublev in the fourth round, the Italian can still be grateful that he is in the considerably easier bottom half of the draw, which stands in stark contrast to a top half stuffed with Nadal, Djokovic, and Alcaraz. Consequently, Sinner has the chance to do well again in Paris. And if he can somehow come past Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Daniil Medvedev in his half of the draw to reach the final, whoever he faces – and it will almost certainly be one of Nadal, Djokovic, or Alcaraz00he will have a chance to remind everyone, including himself, that he is not just the forerunner of Alcaraz but a potential major rival for the Spaniard for the next decade or more.

Main Photo from Getty.