Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and the perfect timing of an epic rivalry’s next chapter

Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz have both become grand slam champions since their US Open epic in September 2022  (Getty)
Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz have both become grand slam champions since their US Open epic in September 2022 (Getty)

As the news of Novak Djokovic’s withdrawal from the French Open began to spread around Roland Garros, a clip of Carlos Alcaraz talking about his rival started to resurface on social media. But not that one – the other one. Last November, ahead of the ATP Finals in Turin, Alcaraz was asked if the Italian Jannik Sinner could be a contender at the grand slams in 2024. “I’ve no doubt about it,” Alcaraz replied, before the 21-year-old went a step further. “I think he’s going to reach world No 1 in 2024.”

Alcaraz’s prediction has already proved correct. With Djokovic forced to pull out of the French Open due to a torn medial meniscus in his right knee, Sinner was confirmed as the new men’s No 1 following his straight-sets win over Grigor Dimitrov. At 22, Sinner is the first Italian to reach No 1, his new ranking confirming what has been clear to everyone since he won the Australian Open in January, or even before. “Right now he’s the best player in the world,” Alcaraz said.

Given the Spaniard’s powers of prediction, perhaps he could have seen Friday’s match-up on the horizon, too. The French Open has its dream semi-final, the one tennis has been waiting for: Alcaraz vs Sinner, the two best players of their generation, facing each other at a grand slam and best-of-five sets for the first time since their US Open epic in 2022. “It’s the match everybody wants to watch,” said Alcaraz, after thrashing Stefanos Tsitsipas in his quarter-final.

It couldn’t have arrived at a better time, either. So much has changed since their unforgettable five-set, five-hour clash in New York two years ago. Alcaraz prevailed at 3am in the latest finish in US Open history, opening the door to his first grand slam title at 19 and becoming the youngest world No 1 in history. When a second grand-slam title followed at Wimbledon, with his titanic five-set win over Djokovic, the Spaniard had elevated himself to a different level from his peers.

Sinner, though, has joined him. After comprehensively beating Djokovic in Melbourne and then launching an extraordinary comeback against Daniil Medvedev to win the Australian Open final, Sinner and Alcaraz will meet in the French Open semi-finals as equals; as grand-slam champions and world No 1s, having also beaten Djokovic on the biggest stages. Their paths to the top were different, and instructive: Alcaraz’s ascent was explosive, Sinner’s journey was more considered and patient.

But the next big rivalry in tennis has become the rivalry: which, in part, is owed to how entertaining their encounters have been. The head-to-head is evenly poised with four wins each - Alcaraz won their last meeting in the Indian Wells semi-finals, when he ended Sinner’s 19-match streak – but it is as if Alcaraz and Sinner’s styles have been made for each other. Take last season’s ATP point of the year in the Miami semi-finals: both players stretching the court to its limits, yet still finding new angles.

The spectacular exchanges encapsulate how Alcaraz and Sinner can drive each other to new heights. “Thanks to him I push myself to be a better player, to improve my game to try to beat him,” Alcaraz said this week. Certainly, against Sinner’s ball-striking, the Spaniard’s scrambles behind the baseline take him into even deeper pockets of the court. His ability to turn defence into attack, conjuring magic from improbable positions, demands even more from Sinner, whose footwork and mobility at 6ft 2in is an impressive area of his game.

Alcaraz and Sinner appear to enjoy it, too, as if entertaining the crowd is as much of a goal for them as winning. Another outrageous point at this year’s Indian Wells saw Alcaraz and Sinner laughing when it was finally over.

It’s obvious how tennis needs this, with the sport pinning its hopes on Alcaraz and Sinner’s rivalry stepping into the void left by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. And with the 24-time grand slam champion out of the French Open, and maybe even Wimbledon too, it feels as if the Alcaraz and Sinner era is only just beginning.