Coming into the US Open, there appeared to be two players a head above the rest of the draw in Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal. However, even those two players had question marks, as Nadal has struggled with injury this last year, and Medvedev was having only a mediocre year by his own standards. Other possible contenders were bounced early, like Stef Tsitsipas and Hubert Hurkacz and Taylor Fritz. As the tournament moved on, it looked like it would be Nick Kyrgios’ to lose, with an eye on Carlos Alcaraz as he chased not only his first Slam but a world #1 ranking, despite having never made even a Slam semifinal before.
But one by one the upsets rolled on, until we were left with Frances Tiafoe knocking out Nadal, and Karen Khachanov upsetting the hottest player on tour at the moment in Nick Kyrgios. Of the original favorites, only the Spanish boy wonder at this point is left. And if Alcaraz gets beaten, the US Open is officially a grab bag for the nearest hot hand. It just so happens that he faces his biggest hurdle in the quarterfinals, in other NextGen superstar Jannik Sinner, who just happens to have beaten him twice already this year. Can the US Open get any stranger? Can Sinner complete the Alcaraz hat trick and maybe take the title himself?
Sinner-Alcaraz 4.0: Can the Overshadowed Italian Finish the Destruction of the US Open Draw?
Nick Kyrgios vs Daniil Medvedev was supposed to be the match of the tournament. It was the rematch of Kyrgios’ win from Montreal just a month earlier, and it was the matchup of arguably the most talented player on tour with the world #1, with that latter ranking also being on the line. It mostly lived up to the hype, particularly with the first set tiebreak, and the first great gaping hole was torn into the titanic side of the US Open draw. But it may very well be that the best match is yet to come, and is the matchup of titanic youths that we have here before us.
Firstly, Sinner-Alcaraz looks like a rivalry that could stretch over at least the next decade. Alcaraz won’t even be in his thirties by then, and Sinner is less than two years older. Even more to the point is the quality of the rivalry, and how it has already developed strangely. It looked for all the world like Alcaraz was going to storm the tour straight to the top, with perhaps only Medvedev and the Big Two to stop him. But Djokovic can barely play, Nadal can barely stay on court, and Medvedev has been so-so, and has been kept out of the Spaniard’s way by Nick Kyrgios of late.
But the barnstorming Alcaraz met an unexpected wall in Jannik Sinner, who knocked him out of Wimbledon in the fourth round, and then again three weeks later in the finals of Umag. That latter win is the more surprising, as Alcaraz has a preference for clay, wheres as the Italian prefers hard. Yet after the first set tiebreak went the way of Alcaraz, Sinner allowed him only two games the rest of the match. That is the first hurdle for Alcaraz, then, in the current match, having to beat the Italian on a surface that should favor the latter.
The quality of the matches between these two could not reasonably be higher. Both players are of the rare breed of star that rises dramatically well before the age of 20, with Alcaraz climbing from 32 to 4 this year, having risen over a hundred places last year, and Sinner having risen 475 places in the seemingly far-distant year of 2019. Both have leveled out at the moment, or more precisely have continued to grow but at a slower pace, but each still with the possibility of rising even higher. Alcaraz stands to gain the #1 ranking with a finals win, and the same would push Sinner to a career high of #5. With Nadal, Medvedev, and Kyrgios out of the draw, either outcome seems possible, and both seem destined to do great things one way or the other.
But Carlitos is Better, Right?
But the question we asked in the title is whether Sinner can do the impossible again and beat his friend for a third straight time. It is near to shocking whenever anyone beats Alcaraz these days (he has already gained the mystique that was once reserved for the Big 3), much less to do it two out of two times in the very year of the young Spaniard’s rise. The only comparison this year is Kyrgios beating Medvedev twice. A simple comparison of rankings, titles and wins in 2022, or victories over top 10 players would favor Alcaraz; but a 2-0 H2H this year warrants a closer look at why Sinner may be equipped to handle the matchup yet a third time.
Blueprint for Escaping Alcatraz
Alcaraz beats players with power, with speed, and with a drop shot that plays off of the power strokes that keep opponents behind the baseline. If a player can absorb those blows, then the Spaniard becomes mortal. As for power, Sinner doesn’t seem to have much trouble with it. He hits just about as hard as anyone on tour, he does it from both sides, and he is as relentless in his power as just about anyone outside of Denis Shapovalov or Nikoloz Basilashvili.
I have a slight concern of whether Sinner’s elbow- and wrist-dominated forehand can keep from breaking down over long periods of assault from Alcaraz’s shoulder-heavy forehand (such as in a five-setter), and it may have been that very difficulty that forced Sinner to take five sets to remove Ilya Ivashka in Round 4 (the big Belorussian with a similarly-produced forehand to Alcaraz). However, Sinner has beaten powerful players before, including Alcaraz, and unless the latter makes it his specific intent to attack the Italian’s forehand with unending power, I think Sinner should be fine. We’ll see if Juan Carlos Ferrero comes up with that strategy.
As for speed, Sinner is well-equipped to handle the defensive prowess of the super-mobile Carlitos. If he doesn’t want to take Brad Gilbert’s advice and just hit straight at the speedy Spaniard (Winning Ugly suggests neutralizing a player’s speed by not allowing him to use it), he still has the firepower to hit around him. Sinner hits powerfully from both sides, as we’ve said, and he also takes the ball early, giving Alcaraz even less time to catch up to his strokes. And particularly on the forehand side, Sinner hits accurately, and will use the runaround forehand to hit sharp-angled winners frequently. Even if Alcaraz is able to get a racket on some of these balls, Sinner has the strategic awareness of when to move forward, and is pefectly competent in putting balls away at the net.
The Spaniard Fishes for Winners with a Net
And speaking of putting away balls at the net, Sinner is primed to neutralize Alcaraz’s favorite tactic. Alcaraz has one of the best drop shots in the world, and it may be the best when we consider how it augments his power game. Players have to be so careful of his groundstrokes, and especially his forehand, that there isn’t much room to cheat close to the net. And therein lies the opportunity for a world-class drop shot. However, Sinner is one of the worst people to use this strategy against, because he has every skill required to offset it. First of all, he usually hits groundstrokes on the rise, meaning that he is standing closer to the baseline than normal. Secondly, he has the quickness to get to the net in order to pick up the drop shot. And finally, he has some of the best hands in the world once he’s gotten there, and is at no disadvantage in the short game. In fact, I might even give him the benefit of the doubt over Alcaraz in that department.
It’s this very skill—being able to handle Alcaraz’s drop shot—that makes him one of the most dangerous players for the Spaniard, along with a small set of players that includes Djokovic and Medvedev. There are a lot of powerful players out there, and even a lot of speedy ones, and everyone is used to dealing with that kind of skillset. Alcaraz might not even be Top 10 if it weren’t for the drop shot. But that is the weapon that makes the baseline groundstrokes so deadly, because there are two attack points to cover and not just one. Few players utilize the net these days, and even fewer as well as Alcaraz. But if a player disarms the net-weapon, then the groundstrokes become manageable. Sinner is one of the most equipped players in that regard, and it is likely the reason why he has already had success where others have failed.
Destroying the Draw
If Sinner pulls off the upset (it’s an upset, right?), then the destruction of the draw will be complete. The title is already going to go to a first-time Slam champion, which is interesting enough, but Alcaraz still seems like the one player in the draw who would be favored over anyone. If Sinner is indeed the kryptonite to the Spanish Superman, it’s anyone’s guess as to who could win. Ruud could take it, of course, but couldn’t Khachanov even, after beating in-form Kyrgios? Or Tiafoe after Nadal? What was the line on a Khachanov title at the beginning of the tournament?
All bets are off if Alcaraz goes down; such is the strangeness of the 2022 US Open that he faces his toughest challenge to get there. If he overcomes Sinner, and goes on to win the title and take the #1 ranking in the final Slam of the year, then the 2022 season was written by a Hollywood screenwriter. If he falls to Sinner again, the US Open script was written by an iconoclast imp, whose handiwork included the ‘21 US Open Women’s final and the disqualification of Djokovic in 2020. He doesn’t work for the oddsmakers or the Big 3 sponsors, but he has a flair for the dramatic.
Sinner can do it. But Alcaraz can also do it. This is the young and fresh version of Kyrgios vs. Medvedev, and it can very easily top its predecessor in drama. All bets are off, and if Sinner wins, all brackets are firmly busted.
Main Photo from Getty.