Carlos Alcaraz v Jannik Sinner: The rivalry men's tennis desperately needs

Spanish world No 2 and Italian world No 3 contest another thrilling match in Indian Wells semi-finals

Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner greet each other at the net after their Indian Wells semi-final match. EPA
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On Saturday night in the Californian desert, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner played out the eighth instalment of their burgeoning rivalry. Once again, it did not disappoint.

The two hottest young stars on the ATP Tour, 20-year-old world No 2 Alcaraz pulled level in his head-to-head with 22-year-old Sinner, the world No 3, with an exhilarating fightback, securing a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory to advance to the Indian Wells Masters final, where he meets world No 4 Daniil Medvedev on Sunday.

Amid Sinner's remarkable start to the season that saw the Italian go 16 matches unbeaten and clinch his maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, Alcaraz has had a comparatively subdued first few months of the year. Yet, his return to form at Indian Wells, where he is the defending champion, has provided a jolting reminder of his world-class pedigree.

Still, regardless of form and circumstances, this match-up brings out the best in both players and delivers fireworks on the court every time. Saturday night was no different, and after two hours and five minutes of another breathless encounter, there is no argument as to the defining rivalry in men's tennis at present.

It is defined not only by its competitiveness but by the spectacle; each match is like a rollercoaster, taking fans on a thrill-seeking ride until an eventual match point brings it to a shuddering end. It means Alcaraz-Sinner matches have simply become unmissable.

“This makes things really fun, no?” Sinner said. “Maybe there is one day where one of us wins three, four times in a row. Then the opponent or the other one has to try to adjust a little bit, trying completely new things.

“Maybe it goes completely wrong, that you lose 6-1, 6-1, or whatever. But I think that's good to see for me and then trying to grow in the future.”

So, what is it about this rivalry that has made it so “magic”, as Alcaraz described it?

It's often said in boxing that styles make fights and the same can be applied to tennis. Alcaraz and Sinner have very similar games that complement each other; both are fast and athletic, they can hit winners from any angle, and possess fine intelligence which allows them to play with creativity and composure. Put these two skill sets up against each other and it's a guaranteed blockbuster.

Like all sports, tennis is always evolving, building on the standards set by previous generations to push the sport onwards and upwards. Alcaraz and Sinner are operating at the pinnacle of this latest evolution, and are becoming global superstars with ever-expanding fanbases in the process.

Indeed, the signs were there back at the 2022 US Open when Alcaraz came through a high-octane, five-set thriller in the quarter-finals on his way to his breakthrough major title.

“Matches with Jannik are always special,” Alcaraz said. “We know we have to play at our highest level to win. We have to put magic on the court, unbelievable points and for the crowd it is also wonderful.”

It is also desperately needed for the present and future of the men's game to have a rivalry that truly captures the tennis public's imagination.

For years there have been concerns about how the ATP Tour would adapt in the post-Big Three era, when matches between the three greatest players of all time transcended the sport.

With Roger Federer retired, Rafael Nadal soon to join him, and Novak Djokovic – still the world No 1 it must be said – playing a more selective schedule, men's tennis needed a new rivalry to give it a shot in the arm.

Alcaraz and Sinner, of course, have some way to go to emulate the feats of the Big Three, both individually and by the impact of their rivalry, but it gives tennis fans something new to get genuinely excited about, and a foundation for the tour to build its new era upon.

Updated: March 17, 2024, 11:34 AM