Giant-slayer Sinner sets up Rafa showdown

 - Chris Oddo

The Italian teenager outgunned Alexander Zverev for his first top-10 win at a Slam.

Jannik Sinner, Roland Garros 2020, fourth round© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Cool. Calm. Collected. 

Stoic Jannik Sinner was at his unflappable best early on Court Suzanne-Lenglen on Sunday, and poised when he needed to be as he raced away with a relatively uncomplicated four-set victory over sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, to set up a quarter-final with Rafael Nadal.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The 19-year-old may hold an ATP ranking of 75, but he’s been playing at a much higher level ever since he stepped foot on the red clay in Paris.

“If you ask me if I’m surprised, yes, a little bit of course," Sinner said in his post-match press conference. "But at the end of the day it’s tennis and you always try to do your best, some tournaments you play well, some tournaments you don’t play well. It’s great to be in the quarter-finals that’s for sure.” 

With the victory, Sinner became the first male player to reach the quarter-finals on his Roland-Garros debut since Nadal in 2005. Most 19-year-olds would be bouncing off the walls with a result like that, but not Sinner. 

“I don’t watch that much about these kinds of records,” he said. “At the end of the day you want to play well every match, trying to win every match.”

Zverev, attempting to shake off the pain of a heartbreaking loss from two-sets-to-love up in last month’s US Open final against Dominic Thiem, struggled physically during the match and later told reporters that he had taken ill the day before. 

“What can I say?” said the German. “I'm completely sick. I can't really breathe, as you can hear by my voice. I think that had a little bit of an effect on the match today.” 

Jannik Sinner, Roland Garros 2020, fourth round©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Zverev’s physical state may have had an impact, but Sinner’s blossoming game played the starring role. The Italian was on the attack from start to finish and he mixed in an array of drop shots to keep Zverev from getting too comfortable behind the baseline. 

Sinner cracked 39 winners on this blustery day, and won 21 of 29 points at the net. 

As Zverev threatened to rally back from two sets down, the Italian produced clutch tennis in the important moments of the fourth set, saving a break point and surviving a four-deuce game to hold for 3-0. He survived another deuce game to hold for 4-2 and made five consecutive first serves as he served for the match and hammered the final nail in Zverev’s coffin to end affairs after three hours and one minute. 

There was no celebration for Sinner afterwards. Why celebrate when there’s such a big challenge ahead?

“Obviously there's a lot of work to do,” he said. “It's great to reach the quarter-finals here. I'm happy. But there is still a lot of work to do. Physically, technically, everything. It's a long way.”

Facing Nadal on the terre battue is the most daunting challenge that the sport has to offer. Sinner says he will approach this most difficult challenge like all others. 

“Playing against Rafa here in Roland-Garros, it's not the easiest thing,” he said. “The record he has here, I think nobody can beat that. He is super confident here. So, it's going to be a difficult match for sure.” 

Nadal, who rolled past American qualifier Sebastian Korda 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 on Sunday in Paris, expects a firm challenge from the surging Italian. 

“He's improving every single week,” Nadal said. “So he's playing better and better and better. It will be a big challenge. It will be the first time playing against him on the tour. I practiced with him a couple of times, he has amazing potential.”