Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner are the future of tennis – and are equal for now

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Carlos Alcaraz is too young and too good to need anything resembling a comeback.

And yet, when the 20-year-old arrived in the California desert a few weeks ago, that’s where he found himself. Without any tournament trophy since July. In head-to-head battles with his arch-rivals, Novak Djokovic and Jannik Sinner, the lead he had over both turned into a deficit during the last year.

Two weeks later, he has fixed one of those problems and is one match away from fixing the other after producing a game-best performance by defeating Sinner 1-6, 6-3, 6-2. Next up is Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, who was once a relatively manageable matchup for Alcaraz, but Medvedev got the better of Alcaraz in the US Open semifinals in September.

Medvedev has made the last two Grand Slam finals and may be the best hard-court player in the world. Apart from Djokovic, he and Alcaraz are the only players to hold the No. 1 ranking in the last few years. Not a bad pairing for Sunday.

Medvedev recovered from a poor start against Tommy Paul to reach his second consecutive final at Indian Wells by surviving a second-set tiebreaker to beat the American 1-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2. For a long time, Paul was looking for an upset but then he twisted his ankle badly during the tiebreaker and was not in the same condition all night.

Medvedev has won 20 titles but not the same twice. He has never won Indian Wells, which, in the entertaining and unconventional world of Medvedev’s career, may also be a reason for a boost of confidence for the Russian. No one really knows how Medvedev’s mind or game works – except him, of course, and even he can’t fully explain it all.

That’s a Sunday problem, though, and on Saturday night it took just a few minutes for Alcaraz to enjoy his victory over Sinner, the unanimous best player in the world over the past four months, winner of the most recent Grand Slam and the first consecutive Was the winner of 19 matches. His Saturday performance with Alcaraz.

“Every time I’m going to face Janik, I’ll be nervous because if I want to beat him I have to play 100 percent,” he said. “I tried to play my best in every match against him to catch him. I think I did it. If I am not mistaken, we are equal now.”

He is not wrong. Alcaraz-Sinner is now tied at 4-4, and an extremely important psychological edge that Sinner had been enjoying due to the hiatus between their fights is now in Alcaraz’s hands, or rather his head.

Last year, Alcaraz had a win over Sinner here. But then Sinner, still just 22, defeated him in Miami two weeks later. They next met in China in October, where they had ample time to develop during such a formative moment in their careers. And Sinner won that one too, which led to all kinds of questions heading into Saturday, even for him.

“We haven’t played each other in a while,” the always anxious Sinner said after Saturday’s loss. “But that makes things really fun, no? Maybe there will be a day when one of us wins three, four times in a row. Then the opponent or the other has to try to adjust a bit by trying completely new things. It might go completely wrong, that you might lose 6-1, 6-1, or whatever. But it’s good for me to see and then try to move forward in the future.

Sinner’s loss to Alcaraz was his first defeat of 2024 (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

And what should its future be like?

Unless something strange happens, Alcaraz and Sinner should thrill the crowd long term and play their anything-you-can-do style of tennis.

They hit the ball so hard at one point and at the next point, curl and feather shots in such a way that it sounds like they are slowly riffing and improvising on clarinet and piano like jazz musicians. On Saturday, that dynamic and Alcaraz’s slow start made for a rollercoaster of a match filled with desperate sprints and even forced Sinner to dive dangerously on hard courts. It seems like almost every game had another point or moment that a family was talking about on the way home in the car.

‘How about the one where those two were running back and forth and sideways across the court?’

‘Did you see them laughing at how ridiculous they are?’

‘Can you believe those drop shots that Sinner caught from another zip code?’

‘How do you hit that snap backhand over the top with a millisecond’s warning?’

Does Alcaraz get a crucial service break in the fourth game of the third set if her ball is a fraction of an inch lower and stays on her side of the net instead of resting when it hits the tape? A few seconds later, Sinner was falling to the ground, twisting his wrists and banging his elbows, clearly knowing that this was the moment he was going to get away.

The sinner has done what very few people thought of. Just last summer, after defeating Djokovic at Wimbledon, Alcaraz looked poised to take complete control of the game and win a few dozen Grand Slam titles. Papi has completely changed it in the last four months. The carrot-topped junior champion skier played with the kind of aggression that made the closest thing pro players feel to panicking through a locker room.

Paul’s coach, Franco Herrero, described Sinner’s game along tournament lines, using an Argentine expression that translates to “playing naked”.

Sinner knew it would end at some point, and with it his winning streak would end. Sooner or later, he was going to run up against a player almost equal to him every time, at least for a few sets, or perhaps a set he would spend the next decade battling for the tiniest of edges. That would be Alcaraz, a friend and occasional practice partner.

He said, tennis is a game of balance, playing to your strengths, but not all the time, because then you find out.

“At some points I was too predictable,” he said. “I was doing the same things over and over again that in my mind were frustrating me. I was playing very well in the first set. After that, when you see your opponent struggling a little bit, I tried to stay solid.”

It was a wrong move against an opponent who already knows him well on and off the court.

On Saturday, before appearing in court, they talked and laughed while bouncing on their toes in the tunnel. After play stopped early in the first set due to a two-hour delay due to rain, they sat together in the locker room and talked about life.

Sinner and Alcaraz pre-match (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“He means a lot to me,” Alcaraz said of Sinner. “I always say you have to be a good person first and athletics comes after that. Janik thinks the same.”

For several years now, there has been much discussion about what will happen to men’s tennis when the era of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic ends. Alcaraz and Sinner will be what happened in the desert on Saturday. And tennis should be just fine.

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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