New Rivalry Born As Alcaraz Tops Sinner At Paris Masters

Carlos Alcaraz (photo: Eva Matan)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, November 3, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As the third day of the Rolex Paris Masters main draw unfolded on Court Central inside Accor Arena in Bercy, featuring the first appearances by Nitto ATP Finals qualifiers Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev, one of the most-anticipated of the 14 singles matches of the day took place elsewhere on the more intimate Court 1 in front of just a few hundred spectators.

That’s where the two youngest players in the Top 50 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, 20-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy and 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, met in a second-round clash. It was their first ATP Tour tour-level meeting – and it went to the younger, as Alcaraz won 7-6 (1), 7-5 in two hours and seven minutes. The quality and intensity of the play was outstanding – the outcome could have gone either way – and when it was over, the two exchanged a very cordial hug at the net. Both left the court smiling. A rivalry was born.

The two #NextGenATP rising stars have come a long way since April 2019 when they faced each other as wild cards at an ATP Challenger Tour event in Alicante, Spain, won by Alcaraz, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. Now, Sinner, who was making both his tournament debut as well as his Top 10 debut – and is the youngest Italian to crack the Top 10 – arrived in Paris this week at a career-high No. 9 in the rankings, while Alcaraz had risen to No. 35 and was seeking his third Top-10 win in his last four events. He was a semifinalist last week at Vienna.

At stake for Sinner, already the winner of four ATP Tour titles this season was a berth in the Nitto ATP Finals later this month in Turin. He began the day in eighth place in the FedEx ATP Race To Turin. However by the end of his match, he dropped to ninth and was overtaken by Hubert Hurkacz, who earlier defeated Tommy Paul and jumped ahead of Sinner’s 3,015 points with 3,045 points of his own and more to chase after in the next round.

Both Sinner and Alcaraz came out ready to play and after exchanging service breaks in back-to-back lengthy games, settled in for the long run. The Spaniard won the opening set in tie-break fashion 7-1. Alcaraz served three aces and hit 15 winners – nine of them from his forehand side. Although Sinner hit four aces and 12 winners overall, he also committed 19 unforced errors and Alcaraz outpointed him 47-40.

Then, Sinner saved two break points during a lengthy, seven-minute fifth game and won a 12-point battle to hold for 3-2. However, after Sinner surged ahead 5-4 on serve, Alcaraz countered with a hold at 15 with a forehand winner as the match neared the two-hour mark.

Next, Alcaraz broke for a 6-5 lead and, serving for the match, won on his first match-point. Following a back-and-forth exchange, Sinner netted the sixth shot of the final rally and, at last, it was Alcaraz raising his arms in celebration and pumping his right fist in jubilation.

“I’m so happy for this win,” Alcaraz said during a post-match, sideline interview. It improved his ATP Tour tour-level win-loss record this season to 27-16, while Sinner fell to 45-20. “Jannik is playing really, really well this year. He’s fighting for a place in the ATP Finals. I played really good tennis to beat three Top-10 [players] this year. So, I’m really happy.”

The young Spaniard finished with 26 winners – 18 of them from his forehand side – and made 26 unforced errors. However, he pressured Sinner into committing 43 unforced errors – 23 of them forehands – which overshadowed his 20 winners. Alcaraz converted two of 11 break-point chances and was broken just once in two looks. He outpointed Sinner 89-75 and advanced to Thursday’s third round against French qualifier Hugo Gaston.

After Wednesday’s Alcaraz-Sinner battle – and with each competitor so young – this could be a rivalry that will be a part of men’s tennis for many years to come.

“For sure, I hope to play more against him,” Alcaraz said. “He deserves to be in his ranking. I think we will be in the top [of the rankings]. I hope so.”

Beautiful atmosphere’ pushes Gaston to triumph

Among the nice surprises this week in Bercy has been the play of 103rd-ranked French qualifier Hugo Gaston. The native of Toulouse who now resides in Fonsorbes, Gaston upset No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-5, to start the day on Court Central. Gaston broke Carreño Busta seven times in 17 tries and won despite being outpointed 105-99. Gaston’s victory over the World No. 18 Carreño Busta was the highest-ranked player he’s beaten this season and it was the ninth time he’s come back to win after losing the first set.

“Well, it was a difficult start, but I relied on the great audience, the beautiful atmosphere that pushed me here all of the way to the end,” Gaston said during his press conference. “It’s thanks to them I was able to win this match. I always believed in my chances I never gave up and that’s what enabled me to stay in the match and I’m very happy that the outcome was positive for me.”

Gaston has split his time between the ATP Tour and playing in Challenger Tour events this season. His victory over Carreño Busta improved his tour-level win-loss record to 8-5. In all competitions, he’s 43-26.

It seemed only natural that Gaston would be asked by French reporters to compare what it’s like for a Frenchman to play in Bercy at the Rolex Paris Masters versus at Roland Garros. The 21-year-old Gaston expressed it this way:

“Yes, I feel well here. The audience played a great role to help me in this match,” he said. “They pushed me from the beginning to the end, and that’s certainly why I was asking the support from the audience, because I need it, and I want to make them involved in the match. And it also helps me play well.

“I will continue doing that. I will continue using them, because it’s something that I love, and if it can make everyone proud, I’m very happy.”

Fritz, Norrie keep winning in Paris

No. 26 Taylor Fritz of the United States, a finalist at the St. Petersburg Open Sunday, pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament thus far with his 7-5, 7-6 (2) victory over World No. 6 and fifth seed Andrey Rublev of Russia on Court 1. Fritz, who had never won more than two straight matches against Top-10 opponents prior to this year, now has won three straight. He fired 11 aces and saved the only break point he faced during his one-hour and 20-minute triumph. He outpointed Rublev 71-64.

“I served really well today,” Fritz said in an on-court interview with Tennis Channel. “I knew it was going to be important to make a lot of first serves for the free point and to just be able to make the first strike when he returns them. With Andrey, between the both of us, who ever gets the first hit on the ball usually is winning the point. It was a lot of serving back and forth. I only broke him the one time. There weren’t a lot of break chances. I just took care of my serve.”

Next, Fritz will face No. 10 seed Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, who eliminated No. 25 Reilly Opelka of the United States, 6-3, 6-4, in an hour and 13 minutes on Court 1 for his 50th win this season. The World No. 13 Norrie hit just 13 winners and 12 unforced errors but was the steadier player as Opelka committed 30 unforced errors. He withstood the hard-serving American’s nine aces and 20 winners to move into the third round, which kept his Nitto ATP Finals chances alive.

“I was really happy to beat Reilly,” Norrie said during his press conference. “Obviously he’s difficult. There’s not much rhythm. He can play very aggressive and then in the rallies he was very solid. So it was a big win for me, and especially with a lot on the line. So I was happy with how I handled myself.”

Norrie said he’s keeping an eye on all of his competitors who, like him, are fighting for the final two positions in the Nitto ATP Finals lineup.

“I’m really enjoying the fact of these last couple matches, and there’s only two spots for basically the four of us, so I think it adds another element, and I really like that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I would love to play and compete in that event.”

Around the Accor Arena

• No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas made an abreviated appearance – 27 minutes and six games – before retiring for the first time in his pro career. It came during his second-round match against 71st-ranked lucky loser Alexei Popyrin of Australia, trailing 4-2, due to a right arm injury. A total of 42 points were played before Tsitsipas made the decision to terminate the match.

“I haven’t retired once in my life, and it was something that I had to do today,” Tsitsipas said during press. “I have been feeling also I’m trying to be precautious for the next tournaments, which is the most important one for me. My arm has been – I have had an issue there for quite a while now. It has gotten bigger in the last couple of weeks, so I’m just trying to protect it.

“I felt the pain playing in the match, and I just don’t want for it got get worse than it is now.”

Next, Popyrin will face fellow Aussie James Duckworth in the third round. The No. 55 Duckworth was a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win over 67th-ranked lucky loser Lorenzo Musetti of Italy on Court 2. Duckworth hit 11 aces and outpointed Musetti 100-87 during their two hour and five minute match.

• No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada was upset by No. 58 Dominik Koepfer of Germany, 6-3, 7-5, in an hour and 38 minutes on Court 1. The loss ended Auger-Aliassime’s chance of qualifying for the Nitto ATP Finals.

Despite hitting 10 aces and 21 winners, the World No. 11 Auger-Aliassime committed 35 unforced errors, hit eight double faults and was broken four times. After saving seven match points to beat Great Britain’s Andy Murray on Monday, Koepfer won on his first match-point opportunity to advance.

“My game level was low, I served badly from the beginning to the end,” Auger-Aliassime said in press. “I tried, but [it] was very low level. So, I’m really disappointed.”

Asked if it’s a match to be forgotten, the young Canadian said: “Well, I have to understand what to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Next, Koepfer will face No. 7 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, who hit 13 aces and converted four of nine break points to beat 53rd-ranked qualifier Tommy Paul of the United States, 7-5, 7-6 (4), in an hour and 48 minutes on Court 2. It was their first meeting. Hurkacz remained alive for the final berth in the Nitto ATP Finals, currently in eighth place.

• No. 11 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina was upset by No. 57 Marcos Giron of the United States, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), on Court 1. A day after Giron took out fellow American Frances Tiafoe in three sets, Giron outplayed the World No. 15 Schwartzman, the highest-ranked player he has defeated this season. Giron outpointed Schwartzman 92-84 and put away the victory in two hours and 11 minutes with a nifty backhand volley winner at the net, his 25th winner of the match.

Next, Giron will face No. 6 seed Casper Ruud of Norway in Thursday’s third round.

• No. 15 seed Gaël Monfils came back from a set down to beat No. 59 Adrian Mannarino, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, in an all-French matchup on Court Central. The World No. 22 Monfils took a nasty spill early in the match and left the court for a medical time out. However, it didn’t seem affect him the remainder of two-hour and 26-minute match. Monfils put away the victory with a second-serve ace, his ninth. He fought, battled and capitalized on his third-set momentum to set up a third-round showdown with top seed Novak Djokovic, whom he is 0-17 lifetime.

Afterward, during his press conference, Monfils addressed the issue of his leg injury: “I’m going to have an X-ray, so we’ll see how my body will react. When I’m 100 percent fit, I have not defeated ever Djokovic so far. So now that I’m not 100 percent fit, my chances are very low. I will see what decision I will make. We’ll see.”

• No. 16 Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria rallied to beat No. 31 Karen Khachanov of Russia, 4-6, 6-2, 6-0 in an hour and 56 minutes on Court Central. Although Khachanov fought off two match points on his serve in the final game, the 30th-ranked Dimitrov won on his third match point after Khachanov killed a 19-shot rally with a netted forehand return. Dimitrov hit 29 winners and won 12 of 16 net points.

Dimitrov outpointed his opponent 91-70 to advance against No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany, who held off No. 34 Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, 6-4, 7-6 (5), in an hour and 40 minutes to begin the Court Central night session. Playing in his first match since winning the Erste Bank Open in Vienna on Sunday, Zverev fired 14 aces and hit 28 winners. He outpointed Lajovic 81-67.

• No. 39 Sebastian Korda of the United States wrapped up his second-round 6-2, 6-4 victory over No. 28 Marin Cilic of Croatia with his fourth ace. The 21-year-old American won all but seven points on his serve – which included winning 16 of 16 in the first set – and he delighted the Court 1 crowd throughout his 71-minute win. Korda outpointed Cilic, who won the St. Petersburg Open on Sunday, 58-39. Forty-four of Korda’s points were on rallies under five shots.

In Thursday’s third round, Korda will face World No. 2 and second seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia, who defeated No. 46 Ilya Ivashka of Belarus, 7-5, 6-4, in an hour and 30 minutes to close out the Wednesday night session, ending just minutes before midnight.

“It doesn’t matter how you play in the first round,” said Medvedev, who squandered a 5-1 first set lead. The Rolex Paris Masters defending champion outpointed Ivashka 67-57. “The one who raises his level throughout the tournament is the one who will win it.”

Wednesday’s Rolex Paris Masters results

Thursday’s Rolex Paris Masters order of play

By the numbers

As World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic continues his pursuit of winning the Rolex Paris Masters for a sixth time, waiting to play his third-round match against No. 15 seed Gaël Monfils on Thursday, the 85-time tour-level champion played doubles with fellow Serbian Filip Krajinovic on his “day off.” The wild card entrants won their opening match against Australians Alex de Minaur and Luke Saville Monday. On Wednesday, they lost to No. 6 seeds John Peers of Australia and Filip Polasek of Slovakia, 7-6 (2), 6-4.

“Quotable …”

“I always felt that when I start to play well, it’s almost easier to continue. You have the confidence and know what is working well, the routines. You keep doing what you’ve been doing. Keep it going. really want to finish Top 20 this year. There’s only two weeks left, so it’s not too hard to keep pushing myself these last two weeks.”

Taylor Fritz of the United States, on staying in the zone of winning during the final weeks of the 2021 season.

“Im still learning, gaining experience. I’m [ranked No.] 35 right now. I mean, I’m really happy for the level I’m playing right now. So, I mean, I hope to be in the same position as Jannik Sinner in a couple of years, so I’m really happy for the level right now.”

Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, during his press conference, in comparing himself to Jannik Sinner as he nears the end of his first full-time season on the ATP Tour.