Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner: the ‘New Two’ finding their feet, form and fitness in Paris

Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner in Indian Wells.

Tumaini Carayol, the tennis writer for The Guardian, has called for a moratorium on the use of the term “The Big Three”, for example in relation to Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, who are currently dominating women’s tennis. He rightly argues that the term should only be used in relation to the actual Big Three of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who deserve such a grand title after all their extraordinary efforts over the last two decades.

Well, if new terms or phrases are required to describe post-Big Three players and rivalries, then perhaps Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, the two young men to have won Majors in recent years, could be called “The New Two”, given that they have broken through more or less simultaneously and have both presented major challenges to the existing order in men’s tennis, including world #1 Djokovic.

Alcaraz and Sinner both won the Next Gen end-of-season tournament for the best young players on the ATP Tour (in 2021 and 2019 respectively); they have both already won Grand Slam events, beating Djokovic in the process of winning them; and it is often predicted that their rivalry will be the greatest in men’s tennis over the next decade or more.

However, one unwanted point of similarity between the pair was that they both came into the French Open lacking form and fitness after experiencing injury-disrupted clay-court seasons. Fortunately for them and their many fans, the signs after the first week and their first four matches at Roland Garros are that both players are regaining form, fitness and the special footing required for clay at precisely the right time.

Alcaraz and Sinner’s Clay-Court Woes Prior To Paris

Neither Alcaraz nor Sinner had arrived at Roland Garros in the best of shape; indeed, until they actually appeared on the first Sunday of the tournament, there had been considerable doubt that they would appear in Paris at all, and they were not alone in that regard.

Alcaraz had seemed set for a characteristically strong clay-court season, especially in his native Spain, where he had not lost a match since a humbling early loss in Madrid to his much older and more experienced compatriot Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Open in 2021. Since then, he had won the Madrid tournament twice in a row and this year he seemed set for a hat-trick of titles in the Spanish capital, something that even Nadal himself had never managed, until he surprisingly lost to Andrey Rublev, who went on to win the tournament.

After Madrid, Alcaraz withdrew from Rome, principally because he was worried about aggravating an existing right forearm problem. On the eve of the French Open, he had appeared optimistic that the problem had largely healed, but he was certainly not at his brilliant best in his first two matches in Paris, against J. J. Wolf and Jasper de Jong respectively. However, over the middle weekend of the tournament, in his third and fourth round matches against Sebastian Korda and Felix Auger-Aliassime respectively, he showed more than enough to suggest that he is not only overcoming any injury doubts but getting back to his Major-winning best.

Similarly, Sinner experienced a difficult run-in to the French Open. Having been so magnificent at the end of 2023 and the start of 2024, when he won both the Davis Cup with Italy and his first Major in Melbourne, and then consolidated that golden form with further titles in Rotterdam and Miami, he experienced hip problems that meant he also had to withdraw from Rome. Obviously, this was a huge disappointment for the home fans, who had hoped that Sinner could become the first Italian man to win in Rome since Adriano Panatta in 1976, but they would be more than placated if it ultimately boosted his chances of winning another Major in the French capital.

Almost exactly like Alcaraz, Sinner was not at his best in the early rounds at Roland Garros, despite achieving comfortable straight-sets victories against Chris Eubanks and French veteran Richard Gasquet. However, just like Alcaraz, in his third and fourth round matches, against Pavel Kotov and the much younger Frenchman Corentin Moutet respectively, Sinner also suggested that he is close to returning to the all-conquering form that he had demonstrated for most of the previous six months, notwithstanding his nearly being bagelled in the first set against Moutet, which he lost 6-2 before recovering to win the match in four sets.

The Two Weeks of a Major Give Players A Chance To Find Fitness and Form

One of the main advantages of Majors for the very best players, like Alcaraz and Sinner, is that the two-week format (added to the week beforehand, which most top players take off) gives them the opportunity to regain fitness and form during a tournament. Indeed, they can even do so during one match, as the five-set format of Majors, which is now unique in all of tennis, allows players to have one or even two poor sets before rediscovering their best form.

That certainly appears to have been the case with both Alcaraz and Sinner. Unfortunately for them, the same is also true of other players. On the women’s side, Ons Jabeur seems to have replicated Alcaraz and Sinner in rediscovering her best and most joyous tennis, which had been missing for most of 2024 (indeed, since she lost her second Wimbledon singles final in a row last summer), over the last week or so.

Most ominously for Alcaraz and Sinner, and indeed for any other man left playing at Roland Garros, is that the same may also be true of Novak Djokovic. Just like Alcaraz and Sinner, Djokovic had had a fairly sketchy clay-court season, to say the least, but in his case it was an extension of a longer-term loss of form that stretched back to the start of the year or even the end of 2023. Having lost to Sinner twice in the Davis Cup (in both singles and doubles) and then been beaten comprehensively by the Italian in the semifinal at the Australian Open, the Serb seemed to remain stunned for the next few months.

Of course, that metaphorical stunning became a literal one, possibly even actual concussion, when Djokovic was hit by on the head by a water-bottle that fell from a spectator’s bag in Rome. And Djokovic certainly played as if he were still seeing stars, rather than being one himself, as he lost limply to Alejandro Tabilo in Rome and Tomas Machac in the semifinal in Geneva. And the fact that he was even playing in Switzerland – that is, playing in the week before a Major for the first time that anyone could remember – was further evidence of how poor his 2024 had been in general and in particular how poor his preparation for Paris had been.

Just like Alcaraz, Sinner and Jabeur, Djokovic appears, after a slow start, to have gathered momentum and morale in Paris. He, too, was not particularly impressive in his early rounds, against Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Roberto Carballés Baena, a doubles specialist and clay-court specialist respectively. And when he went two sets to one down against Italy’s mercurial Lorenzo Musetti on Saturday night (and Sunday morning), it appeared that it might just be the end for statistically the greatest male player ever, not just in this Major but potentially in all Majors.

Then, as if personally affronted by his own relative ineptitude, Djokovic struck back spectacularly, demolishing Musetti in the last two sets for just three games in total. He was given another, even sterner examination by Francisco Cerundolo, again needing to rally from two sets to one down. But having looked to be down amongst the dead men against the hard-hitting Argentine down a break in the fourth, he found away to survive and secure his place in the quarterfinals.

The Top Three Look Unbeatable By The Rest

The best three men in tennis right now are not “The Big Three” of old but the new “Top Three” of Djokovic, Sinner and Alcaraz. However, all three of them came into Roland Garros in either poor fitness or form or both that it seemed possible that for the first time since Gastón Gaudio in 2004, there could be a shock winner of the men’s singles at the French Open.

Now, just over a week on from all the injury doubts and updates at the start of the tournament, the Top Three of Djokovic, Alcaraz and Sinner look as if they are on course for the final, with Alcaraz and Sinner set to face each other in the semifinal if they win their last eight matches against Stefanos Tsitsipas and Grigor Dimitrov respectively and Djokovic, though not at his best, about as hard to beat as ever.

If there is ultimately a final between in Paris Djokovic and either Alcaraz or Sinner, it promises to be yet another epic Major contest between the last member of The Big Three to still be at his best and one of The New Two who are threatening to send him the same way as Federer and Nadal (i.e. into retirement or near-retirement). After such an uncertain, indeed bewildering build-up to the 2024 French Open, that could be  the best possible ending to the tournament of all.

Main photo credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports


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