Alcaraz – Musetti and the five other exciting rivalries between the four young wolves of world tennis (updated after Wimbledon quarter-final between Rune and Alcaraz)

A closer look at the burgeoning rivalries between the four men who could light up the Tour in the future

Sinner, Alcaraz, Musetti and Rune, 2023 Sinner, Alcaraz, Musetti and Rune, 2023 – © Tennis Majors

The last-16 match between Carlos Alcaraz and Lorenzo Musetti at Roland-Garros reminded us that the rivalries between the four post-adolescents in the top 20 of world tennis – Alcaraz, Holger Rune (born in 2003), Jannik Sinner and Musetti (2002) – are still in their infancy.

The strongest rivalry: Alcaraz – Sinner

The words they use to describe their mutual respect are each sweeter than the next, and they never shy away from training together whenever they can. Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner may not actually be friends, but their chivalrous way of communicating about their rivalry is reminiscent of that between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Yet when it comes to tennis, their encounters are unbelievably violent. When Alcaraz and Sinner box on a court, as they did in the quarter-finals of the US Open 2022 or the semi-finals in Miami this year, the game is played at a level of power and speed that has probably never been seen before.

The strange thing about the Alcaraz – Sinner rivalry is that, although Alcaraz is well ahead of the Italian in his career, Sinner’s game is the one that poses him the most problems on Tour and could do so in the long term. He is one of the few who can take time away from him thanks to his power on both sides and one of the few who can sustain his shots without flinching, even countering Carlitos’ speed and angles.

Sinner came within a point – a match point at the 2022 US Open – of gaining the upper hand in their head-to-head. But since then, Alcaraz has won a Grand Slam (the US Open), taken the world No 1 ranking (Sinner has plateaued at No 8) and won two more Masters 1000 titles while Sinner waits for his first.

As Martina Navratilova said of Federer and Nadal, Alcaraz is better than anyone of his generation, but Sinner may still be the better of the two.

Head-to-head: 3-3 (1-1 in Grand Slam, 1-0 Sinner in final)

Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz, Miami 2023
Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz, Miami 2023 | © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

The most romantic rivalry: Alcaraz – Musetti

Lorenzo Musetti plays the role of the youngest player in the magic quadrant of the world’s young tennis wolves. He’s not the youngest, but he’s the least advanced in the hierarchy (18th in the world, no Grand Slam quarters) and above all, with his attacking game with a one-handed backhand, lightness of movement and almost outdated style, it seems a given that he’ll need more time than the others to play the big titles.

Musetti will need more maturity too: the day the general public discovered him when he led two sets to love against Novak Djokovic in the last 16 at Roland Garros in 2021, he finally gave up, unhurt, after conceding 16 of the last 17 games (6-7, 6-7, 6-1, 6-0, 4-0).

But here’s the thing. If his lows are really disappointing (only two matches won in the last five Grand Slams before this Roland-Garros), his highs are extraordinary. In the third round on Parisian clay, Musetti pulverised Cameron Norrie. He also won the only Tour-level match between himself and Carlos Alcaraz in the Hamburg final last summer (6-4, 6-7, 6-4). His creativity can unsettle any opponent, and Alcaraz made no secret of the fact that he remembered that match as soon as he won his third-round match against Shapovalov.

A big battle, or even a sensation, cannot be ruled out.

Head-to-head: 1-0 Musetti

Note: Alcaraz won their first pro match on the lower circuits.

The most eagerly awaited rivalry: Alcaraz – Rune

The pair are from the same year (2003) and have played each other in junior tournaments. They even played doubles together at the Petits As in Tarbes, at U14 level. There’s something of a Djokovic-Andy Murray feel to their relationship: they’ve been testing each other’s mettle since they were teenagers, and one of them has got ahead of the other (Alcaraz), but they’re destined to battle it out for the biggest titles.

Rune’s stats against players ranked in the top 5 are unheard of, although his final loss to Daniil Medvedev in Rome added some nuance to the picture. In those stats: their only meeting in the quarter-finals of the Rolex Paris Masters 2022, the first major event won by Rune. Alcaraz, in the quarter-finals, was unable to go all the way because of an abdominal injury sustained during the match (6-3, 6-6).

Alcaraz’s self-confidence in 2022 had an influence on Rune, like a mixture of desire and liberation, as the Spaniard gave him the right to think that he had no reason to wait until he was 23 or 24 to play in the leading roles.

The pair met each other at Grand Slam level for the first time in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon 2023. Although it was a high-quality and close encounter, Alcaraz won in straight sets, as Rune’s form dipped in the second and third sets following a tiebreak in the first.

This win levelled up the rivalry at one victory apiece, although Alcaraz has now won their most significant encounter.

Head-to-head : 1-1

The most Italian rivalry: Sinner – Musetti

Now back on the map as one of the world’s top tennis nations, Italy is fortunate to have two very young players whose opposing styles seem almost to have been written by a scriptwriter, between the big, powerful man and the artist in the making. For the moment, this rivalry suffers from a certain imbalance; Musetti has never taken a set from Sinner in two matches (including three sets lost 6-2 out of the four contested) and reached their quarter-final in Barcelona thanks to his elder compatriot’s withdrawal.

Head-to-head – 2-0 Sinner

Lorenzo Musetti and Jannik Sinner, Monte-Carlo 2023 – © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

The most electric: Rune – Sinner

Among the matches that revealed Rune to the public at large were his masterpiece at the Paris Masters 1000, his victory over Djokovic in Rome, and that stormy night session against Sinner in Monte Carlo this year. It was one of those matches where Sinner finally gave the impression that he was on the road to excellence, to the great runs of the Masters 1000. But Rune was able to absorb the energy of a predominantly Italian crowd to transcend his frustrations and allow his competitive character to triumph. Memorable and, until proven otherwise, this match proves that it’s no coincidence that Rune has achieved more in the pros than Sinner despite being a year younger.

Head-to-head: 2-0 Rune

The most delayed rivalry: Rune – Musetti

Although they crossed paths a lot on the courts of the Mouratoglou Academy when they were teenagers, both benefiting from the ChampSeed programme, Rune and Musetti have never met in the pros until this week. Having both made it through to the quarter-final stage of Queen’s, the long-awaited clash between two of the game’s brightest young stars will finally take place in West London, with a coveted Queen’s semi-final spot on the line.

This match will also serve as a stern test of both players’ Wimbledon credentials, with the the third Grand Slam of the year just under two weeks away.

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