June 14, 2024
Carlos Alcaraz

Carlos Alcaraz

Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz are starting to dominate the ATP Tour, but will it be their rivalry, not the individuals themselves who define a new era?

If we have learned anything from tennis this year, it is that it’s looking increasingly likely that 2024 is the year when the ‘big three’ era is coming to an end.

For nearly two decades, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have reigned supreme on the ATP Tour. One has now already retired, another looks set to follow suit this year and the last one, Djokovic, appears to be winding down in terms of the amount of tennis he is playing.

However, the statement above is only really partially correct, isn’t it? Because it is not actually the players who have dominated the narrative and captivated audiences for two decades, but the various different rivalries between them.
While all three would consider themselves rivals based purely upon the number of big matches they contested, the Federer-Nadal and Nadal-Djokovic rivalries were always ones that felt special, and tennis felt special as a result. The ‘big three’ wasn’t so much one glorious era, and more two back-to-back ones.

And tennis has always needed those rivalries. It had Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, Chrissy Every and Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Epic rivalries has always been the lifeblood of a great tennis spectacle.

That is why it feels so much more significant that Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner are emerging together. If it was one without the other, it would be good to watch but still lacking in the potential for more.

The three big tournaments so far this year – the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami – have been neatly divided between the two players with them meeting just the once on Tour in 2024 so far (Indian Wells). That match was won by Alcaraz, but Sinner has taken more titles.
While the match in Indian Wells was a brilliant one, as have all of their eight matches so far, you wouldn’t necessarily call it a rivalry just yet. It has all the makings of one, but rivalries are forged in the fires of Grand Slam finals and the pursuit of greatness. Alcaraz and Sinner simply haven’t reached that stage yet.

They surely will, though? After all, all the ingredients are there.

Sinner and Alcaraz have very different on-court temperaments, which is wonderful from a rivalry point of view. In many ways it’s reminiscent of Nadal and Djokovic and McEnroe and Borg, with one bringing the fire and the other bringing the ice.

You would also say that their respective games compliment each other beautifully: the explosive, huge ambition of Alcaraz versus the cerebral precision of Sinner. They can match each other in terms of movement too, which makes for an incredible spectacle just in itself.

There is currently one element here that is still missing, though, and it is an unusual one to breach: there feels like there is no real angst yet.

Now, personally, I think the angst in the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic went a little too far. The players themselves have hit the right balance between mutual respect and ferocious competition. Some of the things you see on social media between their respective deeply loyal fan groups, though… well it hasn’t done anyone any favours.

Sinner and Alcaraz don’t have that yet, and in terms of the fan back-and-forth, that’s probably a good thing. In terms of the lack of palpable on-court tension between them, it’s probably not. We need that.

It will come, of course, and it has to come naturally. While both Alcaraz and Sinner appear to be immaculate exemplars for tennis, once they start directly denying each other the biggest titles in the game, it will come. So far, they have only contested one final and that was the ATP 250 in Umag back in 2022 – and that is never going to one of the more coveted crowns in tennis.

So for now, we wait. For all their winning so far this year, and obvious brilliance on the court, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz still feel like heirs to the thrones. When the do ascend, though, and surely they will soon, we won’t have to wait long for another iconic era in men’s tennis.

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