In the span of three days at Wimbledon, 20-year-old Jannik Sinner underwent two rites of passage: the spark of a new rivalry with a fellow genius, and the fading of an old champion that dashes all hope. On Sunday, Sinner defeated Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old who had spent all spring beating him up the prodigy ladder and beating the big boys. On Tuesday, Sinner threatened to follow Alcaraz’s lead, holding 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. Hopefully the young Italian can take it all in stride. You win something, and you almost-win-until-you-are-crushed-by-an-inexorable-force. At least he can take comfort in the fact that he is now the face of Parmesan cheese. Y Gucci.
Known for his racket’s unerring timing and unsettling booms, Sinner has had success on other surfaces but never won a tour-level match on grass before this year’s Wimbledon. Between that inexperience and some recent injury history (he hadn’t played a match since missing the fourth round at the French Open with left knee problems), expectations were low for him in London. But Sinner came in as the No. 10 seed and pushed steadily through the early rounds. He stopped slipping on the grass and figured out how slide with purpose and (mainly) control. He scored on return against John Isner, the best servebot and matchup from hell on the grass court, breaking it twice to win in straight sets.
And Sinner’s performance against Alcaraz in the fourth round had me hastily retracting an old doubt that the two players would have a fruitful rivalry. At least on this surface, unknown to both, they are tied. At the very least, their matches on grass will be worth watching for the next decade. Squint at some of these points and you can see a Young Nadal vs. Young Djokovic lightly sedated.
For all the hype around Alcaraz’s flawless play, it was also a jarring reminder of just how complete Sinner’s play is. If he isn’t already, the Italian will soon be the most powerful hitter on tour, regularly throwing full-throttle forehands that hit triple digits. His amazing length and timing also make him a dangerous returner; he ranks 10th-best on tour in percentage of return points earned. His own serve is where the advantage lies, and he too has slowly been improving.
Heading into the quarterfinals against a highly favored player like Djokovic, a released Sinner could move freely. Djokovic opened the match strong and earned a break point for a 5-1 lead before Sinner steadied himself. The No. 1 seed then threw in one of the worst service games of his season, making three errors and giving Sinner a chance to equalize, sneaking in a late break of serve and taking the set. Djokovic remained erratic. In those two sets, the Serb saw physically weak and tactically counterproductive turns. To use the technical term, he looked like a total butt. But I’ve seen this movie too many times. Djokovic has recovered from two sets down six times in his career, including twice during last year’s French Open run, both times against promising young players who had no idea they were caught in the jaws of the cruelest trap in the game. tennis until, suddenly, they were shaking hands at the net. There is no reason for Djokovic to intentionally stall, but sometimes it feels like he does it for sport. As if to prove to himself that he is still, at 35, one of the fittest people alive, who can still outrun a child in a marathon. “To be honest, I even liked the fact that I lost the first two sets,” he said last season, after beating Lorenzo Musetti, then 19 years old. “I like to play against young guys best of five, because I feel like even if they’re leading a set or two to love as was the case today, I still like my chances.” Creepy things.
By Djokovic’s account, the match turned into 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 match was all Djokovic. He opened the third set by breaking Sinner’s serve right away. He allowed Sinner some thrills: an intense exchange at the net that almost allowed Sinner a shot to get back into the third set, a cheeky overhand backhand, a spectacular comeback, but in the next two sets Djokovic followed the same plan: break early, play fair and drag the set to its inevitable conclusion. Near the end, he delivered his signature shot, with a new celebration:
What are you supposed to do? He hits you with the plane. You just have to sit there while he feeds you with a spoon.