Jannik Sinner has momentum for Carlos Alcaraz showdown in Paris | Tumaini Carayol

Estimated read time 4 min read

In the middle of the off-season last December, a small ceremony was held at the JC Ferrero Equelite ­academy in Villena to ­recognise the ­academy’s primary court being named after its most famous student, Carlos Alcaraz. Among those present for the occasion in Spain, one person stood out. From the sidelines, a smiling ­Jannik Sinner recorded the moment on his phone. He had been there for the day to train and play an ­exhibition match with his rival.

Over the past five years it has become increasingly clear that the careers of Alcaraz and Sinner would meet at the top of the game, the two brightest talents of the first ­generation to exist mostly out of the shadow of the big three of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Despite that, they have continued to be friendly with each other, to publicly root for the other’s success and even, occasionally, to train against each other.

These friendly rivals will face off again in one of the most significant moments of both of their careers so far. As the highest remaining seeds and the top two favourites to win their first French Open title, Sinner and Alcaraz will meet in the French Open semi-final on Friday with everything on the line.

The fact that they even made it to the semi-finals is a reflection of their excellence. Two weeks ago there were many questions to be answered about their participation in the French Open. Both players had been forced to withdraw from the Italian Open as Sinner struggled with his hip and Alcaraz nursed a forearm injury. Since the tournament started, both have improved through each round and they have looked good.

So far this match-up has been defined by uncompromising, high-octane attacking tennis from both players as Alcaraz has ­established a 5-4 record. In their most significant battle, an unforgettable instant classic in the quarter-finals of the 2022 US Open, Sinner served for the match in the fourth set and held a match point before Alcaraz edged it in five sets, the match finishing at 2.50am. A few days later Alcaraz secured his first grand slam title.

Carlos Alcaraz of Spain reacts after defeating Jannik Sinner of Italy during a five-hour quarter-final at the US Open in 2022View image in fullscreen

As Sinner has fully ­committed to his goals, he has made ­massive strides in the past few years, ­particularly ­mentally. It has also become ­increasingly clear that, such is the timing and cleanliness of his ball-striking, the Italian feeds off the pace that Alcaraz usually provides in the match-up and his groundstrokes are more evenly balanced and solid than Alcaraz’s.

In their most recent match at Indian Wells this year, Alcaraz finally recognised that the key to beating Sinner was not by trying to out-hit the best shotmaker on the tour. Alcaraz instead took a step back, he used more height and top-spin on his strokes, and he relied on aspects of his game that separate him from all others – his slice, drop shot and comfort at the net – as he closed out a great win.

In theory, clay courts are ­Alcaraz’s territory. He has already reached a French Open semi-final and won two Masters 1000 titles in Madrid. The surface seems to ground the Spaniard, allowing him to stand ­further back and build points with more patience. On faster ­surfaces, including against Sinner, he can sometimes be too impulsive and erratic.

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Still, Sinner has shown that he remains the best player in the world for now. The Italian has lost only twice this season and is on a 12-match winning streak at grand slam ­tournaments. While he may not have yet won a big title on clay, it is clear that his game, with its considered yet destructive ­aggression, is suitable for all surfaces.

As Sinner has taken a step up this year, winning his first grand slam title at the Australian Open and carrying his form throughout the first five months of the season, there will be more on the line than ever before. Alcaraz is the younger, more precocious and successful player, but if Sinner carries his momentum forward to another head-to-head win and title, he may not stay ahead for long.

Source: theguardian.com

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