Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner’s rivalry takes centre stage at French Open

Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz have been the future of men’s tennis for a little while already.

Their first meeting, at the Paris Masters in October 2021, gave a glimpse into the highlight-reel tennis the pair produce when sharing a court.

The following year, there was a hugely exciting match in the Wimbledon round of 16 that caught the eye of the casual tennis watcher, followed by an entertaining final in Umag, Croatia, and then the late night / early morning barnstormer at the U.S. Open that announced their brand of tennis as the next great thing at the top of the sport. Then came the seminal Miami Open semifinal in 2023, then another classic in Indian Wells in 2024.

They did all this in long shadows. First two, and then increasingly one — those of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Even as they won their first Grand Slam titles, Alcaraz two and Sinner one, both beating Djokovic along the way, the mythos created by 20 years of domination hung over them.

As they step on to the red clay of Roland Garros on Friday, that mythos is lifting.

With Djokovic expected to miss at least Wimbledon following knee surgery, suddenly this is not just a rivalry in men’s tennis, but the rivalry in men’s tennis. The two best players (who are fit) by a distance, Sinner to be anointed as world No 1 in mere days, Alcaraz on the heels of the stricken Djokovic, ready to overtake him as world No 2.

This is one of those tennis quirks: the match that feels like a final but isn’t one, because of the way the draw has panned out. On the other side of the draw, Casper Ruud faces Alexander Zverev — Ruud, a two-time French Open finalist and Zverev, the form player in the last few months — but Sinner and Alcaraz have been operating at a different level the last year or so (longer, in Alcaraz’s case).

It’s early days in the rivalry, but there are a few things to assess already. It should be close, with both men winning four of their first eight matches against one another. This is not like the early stages of the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry, which began with the latter winning six of their first seven encounters. Or the one currently going on between the two best women’s players in the world, with Iga Swiatek leading Coco Gauff 11-1 in their head to head.

Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz have traded blows over eight matches (Julian Finney / Getty Images)

Nor does there appear to be a surface issue for either player against the other, just yet. Alcaraz has wins on indoor and outdoor hard, Sinner on outdoor hard, grass and clay. But they’ve only met once on those latter two surfaces and Alcaraz became Wimbledon champion in 2023 after four matches at SW19 the year prior, and also won at Queen’s. The clay rivalry, too, should be close if Alcaraz can emulate what he did in Indian Wells, using his ability to vary spin, speed, and depth to throw Sinner off the metronomic, bludgeoning consistency that is a hallmark of his baseline tennis.

The closeness in their head-to-head is mirrored by the closeness of their relationship. They are not best friends off the court — few tennis players are with one another — but they get on very well and love playing against each other. How long that will endure as they face off over time is another question.

After that first meeting at the Paris Masters, a defeated Sinner said to Alcaraz: “I hope we play a couple more times.” A beaming Alcaraz responded: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, for sure.”

Something happens when they play each other — there’s an electricity and a chemistry that sees both players raise the other’s game. In the Indian Wells semifinal in March, there was a sweet moment when after a mind-bending rally that Sinner somehow won, the pair looked at each other and laughed. It was as if they were saying: “Would you look at what we just did?” It, and other on-court interactions the pair have had, give off the feeling you sometimes get in life when meeting a kindred spirit. Wait, you like that band too? You support that team as well? You can also sprint at full pelt and then somehow flick away an angled crosscourt forehand?

“I am quite fast already, and he is much faster than me,” Sinner has said of Alcaraz, sounding like someone who is excited to have finally met their match.

This mutual improvement was a hallmark of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic triumvirate. Nadal dominated Federer, so Federer figured out how to beat him. Nadal figured out grass. Djokovic figured out clay. Their finals, some of the greatest matches men’s tennis has ever seen, demonstrated this in real time, forcing each other to even greater heights and creating a closed-loop training camp that took them further and further away from the field below.

Sinner Alcaraz net scaled

Time will tell if the rivalry takes each player to greater heights (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

It will be interesting to see if Alcaraz and Sinner retain their fondness for one another if the rivalry becomes less even, either in the head to head or in the number of Grand Slams won, or both. But currently, the pair seem to genuinely enjoy the way in which the other raises their game. This is not like Federer admitting in the 2018 documentary Strokes of Genius that, rather than welcoming the threat Nadal posed when he burst onto the scene, he was much happier winning major titles pretty much unopposed, thank you very much.

It’s hard to see either Sinner or Alcaraz streaking away from the other at the moment and there are cases to be made for either currently having the upper hand. Alcaraz is better at changing things up depending on the surface, whereas Sinner typically plays his own game and makes the surface almost irrelevant. This works almost all of the time against pretty much everyone, apart from Alcaraz and Djokovic.

In Sinner’s favour is the momentum he currently has, which has taken him past Alcaraz to take the No 1 spot, as of Monday, as Alcaraz predicted would happen back in November at the ATP Finals, where Sinner reached the final.

It’s tempting to build up Friday’s match as something definitive, as evidence that one player has a hold on the other. But the evidence so far suggests that’s not really the case — that we’re going to need a lot longer and a much bigger sample size to get a sense of where this rivalry is going.

This will hopefully make Friday’s semifinal something mainly to be enjoyed. As Alcaraz put it on Wednesday: “It’s the match everybody wants to watch.”

(Top photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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