Jannik Sinner sees off Carlos Alcaraz to set up Novak Djokovic showdown

They are friends who get by in different languages, yet there was no misinterpreting the tennis alchemy between Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner on Centre Court at Wimbledon on Sunday. It was full of bubbling promise and good summer vibes – even if it did take them two hours to pop the cork.

Not until Alcaraz emerged from an extended flat spot to force and win a tie-break that took them into a fourth set did the most anticipated match of the day begin to live up to expectations.

“They can dominate in the future,” Feliciano López had observed beforehand of the two youngest players left in the men’s draw, “so it is one of the greatest matches we could have.” It certainly was a good match, with flashes of genius and a few twists in the plot, but it did not match López’s billing.

Further shredding the script, it would not be the favourite Alcaraz – the new Rafa Nadal – who prevailed, but the 20-year-old Sinner: 6-1, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-3 in three hours and 35 minutes. The Italian, who saw off Andy Murray’s conqueror, John Isner, at the height of his serving powers in the previous round, will be buoyant going into his first slam quarter-final, if a little tired.

He could have wrapped this up in three sets had he kept focus. Sinner – whose first win on grass was in the opening round here – will need all his physical and psychic energy on Tuesday against the defending six-time champion, Novak Djokovic, who survived some tricky moments to beat the big-hitting Dutch wildcard Tim van Rijthoven, who put 20 aces on him but gave those free points back with interest through 53 unforced errors.

Djokovic, who looked weary at times, won 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 in two hours and 37 minutes under the roof (beating the 11pm curfew by 20 minutes).

Sinner has played Djokovic once, losing in straight sets in Monte Carlo last year – but he’s a different player now, even on grass. He said of the prospect of playing him again: “He’s playing very, very good. I will try my best. That’s the minimum I can do. Just enjoy every moment out there.”

Alcaraz – at 19 the youngest man to reach the fourth round since Bernard Tomic (remember him?) 11 years ago – gave Sinner a two-set start and, but for some glorious forehands, giant serves and a fightback in the fourth, fell short of his best.

On the seventh day of the championships, in the Centre Court’s 100th year, their youthful exuberance filled the famous old court – certainly more joyously than Cliff Richard’s faltering rendition of Summer Holiday in the nostalgia love-fest that preceded the tennis. Old rockers really should stay home more often.

While both were as green as the grass – six matches on the surface for Alcaraz, eight for Sinner – the Spaniard’s bigger game looked suited to it. His first ace of nine on Sunday was his 43rd for the tournament and he has been banging them down at up to 135mph. That’s serious firepower.

Sinner countered with high-grade court geography, mixing it short and long, and broke first. His lateral movement on grass – at 6ft 2in – was a revelation, as if he had been playing on it all his life. (His skiing background probably helped.) Sinner caught Alcaraz off balance often and broke again, taking the first set with an ace, in just over half an hour.

A rocket of a return that painted the baseline earned Sinner a break at the start of the second but Alcaraz finally found some rhythm. Both were hitting 90mph-plus ground strokes, Sinner with care, Alcaraz with increasing desperation. After an hour and 20 minutes he was two sets down and struggling.

Alcaraz needed discipline as much as inspiration but they were in short supply as he struggled in the third set. A botched forehand from mid-court in the seventh game was memorably awful. He came back hard, though, to force a tie-break, emerging from a 15-shot rally to lead 3-2 on his way to holding three set points. Sinner saved two of them on his own serve and the third with a 100mph cross-court forehand for 6-6.

Alcaraz hit long to hand Sinner match point on his own serve, but Sinner dumped a cramped backhand, before fashioning a second chance to wrap it up. Going for glory, he thrashed a forehand into the high point of the net. Then some Spanish magic: a neat, clipped half volley winner from behind his feet for 9-8. A Sinner forehand went long – and they went to a fourth set. Finally, we had a match of coherence.

Or did we? Just as Alcaraz looked to be getting on top, Sinner broke for 3-1 and held nervously from 0-40 for 4-1. Alcaraz saved five match points on his own serve at 2-5, but could do nothing about the sixth, as Sinner thrashed a final winner.

Before play they talked about their fledgling friendship, Sinner insisting they spoke to each other in a mix of Spanish and Italian, Alcaraz protesting his Italian is in its infant stage. Both, though, are scholars in a shared language of no words at all. It will be a joy to watch them converse on those terms for years to come – maybe more eloquently than on Sunday.

While the tennis was winding down late in the evening, the All England Club released a list of players fined for code violations that included, unsurprisingly, $10,000 for Stefanos Tsitsipas and $4,000 for Nick Kyrgios after their tantrum-filled match on Saturday night. Those fines were about right, too