London: Nothing could throw Jannik Sinner off course on Sunday as he zoned in on securing a blockbuster quarter-final date with six-time champion Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon.
Even when Carlos Alcaraz snatched away two match points during a spellbinding third-set tiebreak, the Italian did not flinch.
When three more match points disappeared within a blink of an eye with Sinner 5-2 up in the fourth set, the Italian kept on believing.
And it was that belief, along with a sledgehammer of a forehand, that carried him into the Wimbledon quarter-finals for the first time with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-7(8), 6-3 victory over the Spanish fifth seed.
On a day when Wimbledon’s most famous stage celebrated its centenary, the two youngest players left in the men’s draw gave a glimpse of the future with some breathtaking shot-making that earned them a standing ovation from 15,000 hollering fans.
“It’s tough when you have match point and you still have to play — I tried my best,” said Sinner, who until this week had never won a match on grass.
“I’m very happy how I reacted in the beginning of the fourth because I was struggling but I’m very happy to be in the next round and, hopefully, I can play some good tennis there.”
With Wimbledon’s all-time greats Rod Laver and Billie Jean King watching on from the Royal Box, the first two sets gave absolutely no indication of the nail-biting drama that would unfold on Centre Court.
The highly rated Alcaraz, who has won a Tour-leading four titles this year, was sucked into a Sinner whirlwind as he lost seven games in a row from 1-1 in the first set.
Just when it seemed that Sinner would unceremoniously freeze out the friend with whom he had shared an ice bath two days earlier, Alcaraz’s fearsome forehand suddenly started to cause some damage.
At 6-6 in the third set, it was game on in the battle of the belting forehands.
Sinner denied Alcaraz three chances to close out the set, with the Italian 10th seed saving the third of those set points with an outrageous crosscourt missile that was clocked at more than 100mph.
Djokovic said the start times for the evening sessions at the All England Club were effectively turning Wimbledon into an indoor tournament for players scheduled to play late matches on the main showcourts.
The reigning champion beat wildcard Tim van Rijthoven in four sets under the Centre Court lights on Sunday in a match that finished at about 10.40pm local time (0940 GMT).
“I don’t see a reason why there wouldn’t be an earlier start,” Djokovic told reporters.
“If you’re scheduled last on the Centre, you’re going to end up a match under the roof, which changes the conditions, the style of play, the way you move on the court. It’s more slippery. The lights.
“It’s really an indoor tournament in most of the cases when you’re scheduled last on Centre or Court One.”
The start of Djokovic’s match on Sunday was further delayed by a ceremony marking the centenary of Centre Court involving a parade of champions.
“Of course today it was a special occasion,” the six-time Wimbledon champion added.
“For me it was an honour. I was very happy to be part of it. It’s one of those unique moments that you get to live as a tennis player, and I’ll cherish it.
“But I think most of the players would probably agree that we would all want the start of the match on Centre Court pushed earlier.”
Break from tradition
While much later finishes are common at the Australian and US Opens, Wimbledon was unable to host matches after dark until the retractable roof and floodlights were installed on Centre Court for the 2009 championships.
This year play was scheduled over all 14 days of the tournament, bringing an end to the tradition of a day off on the middle Sunday to allow the grass courts to recover.
Djokovic said that while he respected the traditions of the tournament, the changes illustrated that alterations could be made to the schedule.
“Since there are some changes this year that we never thought we’d see in Wimbledon, why not move it for half an hour, one hour earlier?” he said. “I think it would be quite helpful to finish matches maybe not using the roof.”