When the U.S. Open draw was announced two weeks ago, the first two names I sought out were Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz. The two young crushers treated the world to five hours and 15 minutes of psychedelic tennis at last year’s Open, an ultramarathon that tennis-knowers treated as prophecy and neophytes like me welcomed as a conversion experience.
If they could produce a match like that—emotionally attritional, stuffed with geometrically profane shots, ceaseless—I had to have more. Although the two players were seeded in the same quadrant, Alexander Zverev denied Sinner another shot at Alcaraz on Monday, as he outlasted the Italian 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 in a delirious all-nighter of their own. Zverev’s five-set win, the longest match of the tournament so far at four hours and 41 minutes, wasn’t quite on the level of last year’s quarterfinal, but that’s an unfair comparison given the stylistic differences between Zverev and Alcaraz. Where Sinner-Alcaraz was a beautiful display of shotmaking and creativity, Sinner-Zverev was more like high-level tennis as survivalism.
The jam-packed Arthur Ashe Stadium functioned as a low-grade sauna; both players needed to towel off constantly, fighting the limits of their integumentary systems as much as they fought each other. Zverev ripped the first set away from Sinner with a pair of gnarly forehands and a searing ace. The dynamic started to coalesce: Zverev’s bigger and more accurate first serve kept him in good positions, and his deadly forehand helped him close out points, while Sinner’s gorgeous ball-striking gave him an edge when he could nullify Zverev’s early advantages and force longer exchanges. Sinner tightened up his game in the second set, breaking Zverev twice to take it 6-3, producing some real magic in the process.
Right when Sinner seemed to be wrangling control of the match early in the third set, his body started to fail him. He was so racked by cramps that he could barely walk, hobbling around the court and unsuccessfully trying to stretch himself out. Sinner saved five break points in a valiant hold to even it at 2-2, but Zverev eschewed winners for longer points and used less of his serve clock to force Sinner’s legs back into action as soon as possible. It was brutally effective tennis. If you can’t stand up, you can’t win, and the German was chopping away at Sinner’s legs. It seemed as if the Carota Boys, a quintet of enthusiastic Sinner superfans, would swiftly be Italy-bound.
Rather than roll over, Sinner received a massage from the physio after the third set and took it to Zverev. Grim spectacle (derogatory) became grim spectacle (five-star body-horror movie). Sinner forced and lost four break points in the first game, forcing Zverev to the net to punish him and zipping remarkably flat forehands into the corners. His legs seemed to stabilize throughout the set as Zverev finally cracked, wheezing and doubling over in pain between points. The clock struck midnight, a fan in the eighth row was ejected for screaming “the most famous Hitler phrase there is in this world,” according to Zverev, and Sinner crafted the most beautiful point of the night midway through the fourth set. When he finally won the set, he barely celebrated. He scarcely even moved, staring toward the spot where Zverev had airmailed a forehand out of play, briefly glanced upward, and limped to his bench. This wasn’t a night for triumph, just endurance.
I desperately wanted Sinner to win, and though he was diminished—he committed 67 errors, 21 more than Zverev—his fight was so admirable that I couldn’t even be disappointed in the final result. Gasping for breath on the hard court, it was clear that Sinner had fully emptied the tank, that there would be no reunion with Alcaraz. Zverev won, and Sinner left the court in tears.
It’s heartbreaking to see Sinner hit his maximum and once again end up as a character in someone else’s story. What draws me to him as a player, more than his Parmesan cheese sponsorship, the fact that we kind of look alike, or his Carota Boys, is that he’s managed to succeed at a high level and take part in some incredible matches despite a few holes in his game. He doesn’t have the most powerful or accurate serve, his drop shot comes and goes depending on the opponent, and yet he’s must-see when it all clicks for him. Sinner is what I want out of a tennis player: someone who uses imperfect circumstances and tremendous gifts to create beautiful moments.