Column: Carlos Alcaraz-Jannik Sinner’s thriller at U.S. Open shows men’s tennis in good hands
Forget about who was missing from the men’s field at the U.S. Open this year.
Wish Roger Federer luck as he recovers from knee problems and aims for a return next month. Wish the same for Alexander Zverev, who suffered a gruesome ankle injury at the French Open. Wish whatever you think appropriate for Novak Djokovic, whose refusal to be vaccinated against COVID meant he couldn’t enter the United States to attempt to match Rafael Nadal’s 22 Grand Slam singles titles.
Instead of mourning who wasn’t here, celebrate those who came to compete at Flushing Meadows, where the rattle of the No. 7 train and the roars of planes taking off and landing at nearby LaGuardia Airport harmonize in a unique urban lullaby.
Celebrate Maryland native Frances Tiafoe, who barged into Friday’s semifinals and jumped to the front of the straggling line of candidates to end American men’s nearly 19-year drought in Grand Slam singles events. Celebrate Nadal, who left his heart on the court in a year that brought him titles at the Australian and French Opens but also brought injuries that create doubts about whether he can maintain the physicality that is the essence of his success.
Above all, let’s celebrate Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, who made sure the city that never sleeps had a compelling reason to stay awake while they played a memorable quarterfinal match that began Wednesday night and bled into Thursday morning before Alcaraz won 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-7 (0), 7-5, 6-3.
“I had some tough losses, for sure. This is in the top list. I think so,” Sinner said at a news conference that began around 3:15 a.m. Thursday. “Concerning also the rest of the tournament, I think this one will hurt for quite a while.”
Frances Tiafoe became the first American man since 2006 to reach the U.S. Open semifinals with a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), 6-4 win over Andrey Rublev of Russia.
Theirs was the last quarterfinal, but it was the first knock-down, drag-out battle of what promises to be a glorious rivalry for the next 15 or so years. Tiafoe, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada and semifinalist Casper Ruud of Norway also fit into any conversation about which rivalries might come close to matching the Nadal-Federer-Djokovic battles that have elevated the sport for decades. Tiafoe and Alcaraz will get a crack at it in one semifinal Friday; Ruud will face Karen Khachanov of Russia in the other battle for a place in Sunday’s final.
“Thank you to @janniksin & @carlosalcaraz for showing us the future of tennis now,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said on social media. “Incredible in every possible way.”
Spaniard Alcaraz, an acrobatic and phenom at 19, and Sinner, an Italian who blends power with precision and looks 12 years old instead of 21, played for five hours and 15 minutes. They finished at 2:50 a.m. Eastern Time, a record for the latest finish of a match at the U.S. Open.
Coco Gauff, who lost in the quarterfinals and was preparing to leave New York, couldn’t resist staying up past her bedtime to see how it all played out.
“This match is insane,” she tweeted. “I leave at 6am for the airport but I refuse to sleep and miss this. #Sinner #Alcaraz.”
It was worth losing sleep.
The match had momentum swings. Sinner had a match point and was serving at 5-4 in the fourth set but missed a backhand, double-faulted and missed a volley. “Talking now, it’s easy, no? When you’re on court, it’s different,” he said of what had made the difference. “You feel a little bit more the pressure. You feel the momentum also. It’s part of the game, no?
“I was serving quite well until that moment. Especially in the tough moments I served well. Yeah, it went his way. The fifth set I was also a break up. I couldn’t find a way to close it out, and that’s it.”
It had mood swings. Plays that induced gasps. Plays that induced groans. Sinner served 213 times. Alcaraz served 169 times. Sinner hit 63 winners and committed 67 unforced errors. Alcaraz hit 61 winners and committed 41 unforced errors.
The overall quality was astonishingly high throughout, unlike multiple-overtime Stanley Cup playoff games that sometimes turn into play-it-safe slogs involving exhausted players and end when the puck caroms into the net off someone’s skate.
Coco Gauff’s U.S. Open run was a success, but the 18-year-old Floridian was ousted with a 6-3, 6-4 loss to Caroline Garcia in the quarterfinals Tuesday.
“Probably at the end of the match I was in my end, let’s say. It was really, really tough for me,” Alcaraz said. “Of course, the level of tennis that we have played, it was really, really high. But I felt great.”
He was animated and a bit of a showman, cupping his ear with his hand after a well-played point as if to say he couldn’t hear the crowd’s already-loud cheers.
“The energy I receive in this court at 3 a.m., it was unbelievable. I mean, probably in other tournaments, other place, everybody went to their house to rest. But they keep in the court, supporting me. It was unbelievable,” he said.
It was madness and it was wonderful at the same time, the end of something good but likely the start of something better, a sign the future will be in good hands.
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