Between Alcaraz and Sinner, the Future of Men’s Tennis Is the Winner

Between Alcaraz and Sinner, the Future of Men’s Tennis Is the Winner

Photo Credit: Eurosport

It’s the new young rivalry the sport needed.

Vikram Nijhawan, Contributor

Perhaps it was hidden auspiciousness when Andre Agassi, the former tennis great who won four of his eight major titles at the Australian Open, graced Melbourne this year as a spectator, giving Carlos Alcaraz some off-court tennis tips at the start of the tournament. 

But it wasn’t the 20-year-old Spanish wunderkind — the biggest young talent in the sport, better than Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon last year — who prevailed in the domain by denying him an 11th record-extending title. Instead, it was Jannik Sinner, the 22-year-old Italian who shares Agassi’s former coach. 

By defeating the defending champion in the semi-final en route to his title run, Sinner ended Djokovic’s 2,195-day winning streak in Melbourne, a tournament the Serb hadn’t lost since 2018 (barring his inability to compete in 2022 due to his unvaccinated status). In doing so, through bizarre coincidence, he matched an identical feat that Alcaraz accomplished when defeating Djokovic in the historic 2023 Wimbledon final. 

The matching stat just illustrates the distance between these two and the rest of their competition. Sinner and Alcaraz remain the only players born in the 2000s to defeat Novak Djokovic at a major event in recent years, with Sinner having just won his debut Grand Slam title in Australia in a dramatic comeback. 

The rivalries between all-time great players have long dominated professional tennis: Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. These clashes between duelling personalities, playing styles, and cultural impacts have stirred the spirits of fans across eras. Their bouts have become engraved in the edifice of tennis history. Cliches abound which distinguish Federer’s artistry from Nadal’s combative prowess, for instance. It’s the differences between rivals that add to the intrigue, and when it comes to Alcaraz and Sinner, there’s no exception.  

Alcaraz is fire; Sinner is ice. The Spaniard’s explosive style serves as the perfect foil to the Italian’s clinical, smooth power. It’s perhaps the most effective drop-shot on tour against the player who’s proven his ability to return just about any ball on his side of the net. The gaping absence of the beloved Roger Federer still looms over the sport, but in their own ways, these young men carry on some of the Swiss’ legacy through their own games. Alcaraz, already well-known for his emulation of the Swiss legend, through his entertaining flair and aggressive point-finishing skills, and Sinner, through his clinical precision and smooth power. 

The “Big Three” of men’s tennis — Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic — have dominated the sport for the past two decades. With Federer’s retirement in 2022, and Nadal inching toward the same fate, Djokovic has spent the past few years unchallenged by the younger generation on the tour. But that status quo could only last for so long. 

Alcaraz initially burst onto the pro tour in 2022, when at nineteen years old, he beat Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back to win the Madrid Open. By the year’s end, he sealed his first major title at the U.S. Open, in the process becoming the youngest World No. 1 in men’s tennis history. 

Sinner, two years the Spaniard’s senior, has evolved far more gradually yet consistently. After spending years as a perennial Grand Slam quarter and semi-finalist, he ended 2023 as a runner-up at the ATP’s tour-end championship, notching his first win against Djokovic along the way — a feat he replicated just weeks later when he once again defeated the Serb to lead Italy to its first Davis Cup title in almost fifty years. 

Alcaraz and Sinner have already delivered some instant classics in their head-to-head, like their marathon, five-set bout at the 2022 U.S. Open quarterfinal, with momentum shifting both ways in a nail-biter contest before Alcaraz ultimately prevailed. They’ve both delivered plenty of highlight reel-worthy points in their matches – whether that be Alcaraz’s ridiculous behind-the-back retrieval and passing-shot combination at that U.S. Open clash, or Sinner’s brilliant passing shot to end a marathon 25-shot rally at last year’s Miami Open semi-final. 

Both of these feats, executed by each player, conveyed the same message: “I’m not going anywhere.” Throughout last year, Alcaraz seemed like the unstoppable future of the sport. By the year’s end, following a post-Wimbledon slump, he conceded that his Italian peer could very well become the future world number one. 

Thucydides’ Trap dictates that a rising power will always challenge a presiding one. Alcaraz’s Spartan doggedness has now met its match in Sinner’s Athenian dynamism. As even the seemingly invincible Novak Djokovic edges (ungently) toward that awaiting good night, the fading light on the sport’s mainstage may provide just enough ambiance for its two prospective new co-rulers.