October 3, 2022

In the space of three days at Wimbledon, 20-year-old Jannik Sinner went through two rites of passage: the spark of a new rivalry with a peer of genius and the excitement of a former champion stifling all hopes. On Sunday, Sinner beat Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old who had spent all spring passing him on the prodigy ladder and beating the greats. On Tuesday, Sinner threatened to follow Alcaraz’s lead, taking a two-set lead over Novak Djokovic, before falling to the top seed and six-time champion 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 , 6-2. Let’s hope the young Italian can handle it all. You win them, and you almost win them until they are crushed by an inexorable force. He can at least take solace in the fact that he is now the face of parmesan cheese. and Gucci.

Sinner, known for his infallible timing and unsettling racquet booms, has been successful on other surfaces but has never won a single tour-level match on grass before Wimbledon this year. Between that inexperience and a couple of recent injuries – he hadn’t played a game since losing the French Open fourth round due to a left knee problem – expectations were low for him in London. But Sinner arrived as the No. 10 seed and pushed steadily through the early rounds. He stopped slipping on the grass and understood how drag with purpose and (most importantly) control. He composed on the return against John Isner, the first service robot and infernal clash on grass, breaking him twice to win in straight sets.

And Sinner’s performance against Alcaraz in the fourth round made me hastily remove the old doubt that the two players would have a fruitful rivalry. At least on this surface, unknown to both, they died themselves. If nothing else, their grass meetings will be worth watching over the next decade. Squint at some of these points and you can see a slightly sedated young Nadal against young Djokovic.

Despite all the hype surrounding Alcaraz’s flawless play, it was also a shocking reminder of how well-rounded Sinner’s game is. If he isn’t already, the Italian will soon be the most powerful hitter on the circuit, regularly unwinding full-sprint forehands that hit triple digits. His length and odd timing also make him a dangerous returner; he ranks 10th in the league in percentage of return points earned. His own serve is where the advantage lies, and he’s also slowly improving.

Ahead of a quarter-final against a player as favored as Djokovic, a liberated Sinner could go free. Djokovic opened the game strong and scored a break point for a 5-1 lead before Sinner leveled off. The No. 1 seed then launched one of the worst service games of his season, making three errors and giving Sinner a chance to shoot even, sneak into a late break of serve and take the set. Djokovic remained erratic. During these two sets, the Serb watched physically weak and tactically self-destructive turns. To use the technical term, he looked like a total ass. But I’ve seen this movie too many times. Djokovic has come back from two set drops six times in his career, including two at last year’s French Open, both times against promising young players who had no idea they were stuck in the jaws from the cruellest trap in tennis until, suddenly, they are shaking hands at the net. There’s no reason for Djokovic to intentionally tank, but sometimes feels like he does it for sport. As if to prove to himself – who remains, at 35, one of the best conditioned people in the world – that he can still beat a kid. “To be honest, I even liked the fact that I lost the first two sets,” he said last season, after beating then 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti. “I like going up against young guys best of five because I feel like even if they lead a set or two sets to like like they did today, I still like my chances. ” Scary stuff.

According to Djokovic’s account, the match sparked a pep talk he gave himself in the mirror during a bathroom break after the second set. Mirror Novak must have had some serious bars because from there this game was all Djokovic. He opened the third set by immediately breaking Sinner’s serve. He gave Sinner some chills – an intense exchange at the net that almost got Sinner back in the third set, a cheeky lapel above the head, a spectacular recovery, but in the next two sets Djokovic followed the same pattern: break early, play cleanly and drag the set to its inevitable conclusion. Towards the end, he submitted his brand photo, along with a new celebration:

What are you supposed to do? He hits you with the plane. Just sit there while he spoon-feeds you.