Jannik Sinner lays down powerful marker to leave Carlos Alcaraz quaking

Sinner (right) impressed in beating Shelton in straight sets  (Reuters)
Sinner (right) impressed in beating Shelton in straight sets (Reuters)

Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz remain on course for a scintillating semi-final showdown at Wimbledon but the Italian will be happier with his work on the middle Sunday at SW19 as the pair moved just one step away from renewing a rivalry that could well define the next decade of men’s tennis.

While Alcaraz was toiling away on Centre Court, being pushed by the relentless Ugo Humbert before escaping with a four-set win, Sinner was swatting away a potentially dangerous foe in Ben Shelton on No 1 Court with remarkable ruthlessness.

Shelton has arguably been the busiest man at Wimbledon this week, with his first three matches in the men’s singles draw all going to five sets, while he has also been playing doubles alongside Mackenzie McDonald. The 21-year-old American, who burst on to the scene with his run to the semi-finals at last year’s US Open, is a ball of energy around the court and showed no ill effects from his punishing schedule, but Sinner largely outclassed him in a 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (11-9) win that took just over two hours.

Sinner overcame Shelton in three, often comfortable, sets (Reuters)
Sinner overcame Shelton in three, often comfortable, sets (Reuters)

The No 1 seed has been far from perfect during this Wimbledon fortnight – his first-round, four-set win over Yannick Hanfmann was so-so and his second-round grind over good friend Matteo Berrettini was a tough watch. But the third-round dismantling of Miomir Kecmanovic seemed to signal he’d turned a corner and the latest triumph over 14th seed Shelton only confirmed that. Suddenly, he’s into the quarter-finals and the trophy itself is starting to round into view.

Shelton is athletic and boasts a big serve and forehand – a dangerous combination on grass – but Sinner neutered his weapons with punishing, accurate groundstrokes and clever use of angles from the back of the court. He didn’t face a single break point as he wrapped up the first two sets in just 65 minutes and although Shelton found joy in the third with an early break followed by an impressive display of serving (including a 138mph ace at one stage), the favourite managed to hit back to force a tiebreak.

Sinner could celebrate an impressive win (PA)
Sinner could celebrate an impressive win (PA)

At 5-6 Sinner was forced to save one set point and then survived three more in the tiebreak, including one on the Shelton serve, before eventually prevailing 11-9 in an epic. Not as straightforward as the first two sets, but the resilience he showed to combat the power of the American, will stand him in good stead as he hunts a maiden Wimbledon title.

There are certainly fewer astounded oohs and ahs from the crowd in a Sinner match than when Alcaraz is on court, with the Spaniard’s array of disguised drop shots, athletic volleys and inventive winners mesmerising supporters and defying belief. Sinner is much happier from the baseline, which may be less astounding but there is arguably nobody better in that domain and it may yet flummox Alcaraz if they both come through their quarter-finals to set up a thrilling Friday contest. They have already met nine times in their young careers, including on three occasions at a grand slam, and it is a fixture that always delivers.

Even with his patented moments of brilliance, Alcaraz had to work awfully hard to see off 16th seed Humbert 6-3, 6-4, 1-6, 7-5. After a solid first set from the reigning champion, the Frenchman should have won the second as he consistently pressured the Alcaraz serve while easily holding his own, but a sole error at 5-4 saw it slip away in an instant.

Alcaraz was pushed hard by Humbert during a four-set win on Centre Court (PA)
Alcaraz was pushed hard by Humbert during a four-set win on Centre Court (PA)

He hit back to convincingly win the third 6-1 and looked likely to force a decider, or at the very least a fourth-set tiebreak, until the No 3 seed broke at the crucial moment in the fourth to grab the hardest-fought of victories.

After cruising through his first two matches, Alcaraz has now endured a five-set marathon with Frances Tiafoe and this unexpected war with Humbert to suddenly leave his title defence looking considerably shakier than it did a few days ago.

Neither man will be looking beyond their last-eight opponent, but whereas Alcaraz would have been fancied in any semi-final showdown just a short while ago, Sinner is now the man coming up on the rails.