Battle Royal – Conquistador Alcaraz Downs Italy’s Rising Prince

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Photo by Michael Kheir

Bill Simons

Indian Wells

GALLOWS HUMOR: After today’s 3:04 rain delay, fun-loving Indian Wells court announcer Andrew Krasny joked with the crowd, “Well, now we’re going to bring on the bees!”

THE BATTLE OF TENNIS’ TWO RISING ROYALS: Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner didn’t wear any clunky medieval armor today. There was no palace intrigue for royal watchers to dissect. Trumpets didn’t blare. 

But today’s BNP Paribas Open semifinal was clearly a battle between our sport’s two rising princes – two dueling pretenders to the crown long worn by our aging and now wavering 36-year-old king, Novak Djokovic.

At first, in 2022, it was the bounding Spanish conquistador Alcaraz who sprinted out of the gate and made a massive splash. He won the 2022 US Open and last year’s Indian Wells and Wimbledon titles and, at 19, became the ATP’s youngest No. 1 ever. 

Carlos was all but anointed as the game’s commanding new royal. Certainly he would be tennis’ new torch bearer. Could he someday equal the Slam records of the Big 3?  

But not so fast. After Wimbledon, the Spaniard wavered. He lost an epic battle against Djokovic in Cincinnati, underperformed for months and didn’t reach a final. 

After the Australian Open, where he “only” made the quarters, he floundered in South America and hurt his ankle. He was distracted by the noise of social media. Some dared to whisper, “That kid is slumping.”

Sinner, a skier who had a late start in tennis, surged into the top 10 in 2021, but flatlined in 2022. He then courageously changed his team and brought on Simone Vagnozzi and Darren Cahill, who’d coached Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Simona Halep. Jannik lost in the Wimbledon semis, but recently he’s been surging. Since the Beijing Open in September, he’s 38-3, and 10-1 vs. Top 5 players. 

Jannik had beaten Djokovic three times since November, including in the Aussie Open semis. He was dominating the game.

Today, something had to give. Alacaraz had won ten straight Indian Wells matches, while the 22-year-old Sinner, the Aussie Open champ, was on an amazing 19-match winning streak.    

Alacaraz recently said that Jannik is “the best tennis player in the world, without a doubt. He’s playing unbelievably. It will be a big challenge playing him. I’ll see what my level is.” 

He did. After a 3:04 rain delay early in the first set, the Spaniard’s game seemed soggy. His level was modest. In the fourth game, he made a slew of groundie errors, and double faulted. Sinner, moving with ease and unleashing lasers from both sides, broke and then broke again as he collected the first set 6-1 in 34 minutes. The balanced Italian powermeister with the best baseline game in the sport was ascendent, as he dominated the slugfest rallies. Simply put, Sinner was saintly.

Alcaraz had to do something. In the second set he stood back on his returns, hit with more spin and slices, came forward, tried to lengthen the rallies and finally broke serve in the fourth game. Yes, he would lose an astonishing tit-for-tat, criss-cross scramble point, but then he saved two break points, hit a how-gutsy-can-you-get, down-the-line, game-changing backhand and yet another sublime drop shot to claim the second set 6-3.

Game on. As the spirit of Carlos’s many fans soared, Sinner futilely dove to retrieve a volley by the Spaniard. He jammed his wrist and his errors ballooned. Carlos broke twice and raced ahead. 

As a lovely, subtle sunset bathed Stadium 1, the Spaniard blasted a forehand to the open court to score a stunning and thoughtful 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 win. 

Today there was little that was subtle  about the battle of the princes. Sinner’s 19-match win streak was a thing of the past. The notion that the ATP’s No. 3 player was actually the best in the world was now in tatters. Alcaraz also stopped Sinner’s two-match winning run against him. 

Alcaraz, who’d confided that his confidence had been wavering, asserted his will. After his triumph, his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, pointed to his head, as if to say “What a thoughtful triumph!”

Alcaraz’s victorious message on the TV lens was, “One more.” Today he retained his No. 2 ranking, and on Sunday he hopes to become the first man since Novak Djokovic in 2016 to defend his title. 

Today was a triumph by a wildly popular, bounding young champion and one more chapter in what promises to be a glorious rivalry of two young royals who should long rule this sport. 

Photo by Michael Kheir

MIGHTY DOUBLES LADY: Petite, unconventional, confounding and completely unique, Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei is a delight – and one of the better doubles players of our era. Today she teamed with Belgian Elise Mertens to claim the women’s doubles title over Storm Hunter and Katerina Siniakova. It was her 34th title. As usual, we saw a delicious palette of off-pace, spinny shots to all corners of the court. And most of all, her beaming smile lit up the far corners of Stadium 1. 

Also reporting: Vinay Venkatesh

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