There was a definite buzz heading into Lorenzo Musetti and Jannik Sinner’s French Open fourth round matches. The 19-year-old Italians were pitted against Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, but the attractive brand of tennis they had shown in their young careers compelled one to believe they would test the two favourites for the title.

Two youngsters were up against two of the greatest the game has ever seen. While Musetti and Sinner’s defeats to Djokovic and Nadal at the French Open on Monday were perhaps not a surprise, they showed glimpses of unquestionable talent and there was a lot that the two teenagers could take away with them.

While Musetti’s five-set loss was a case of two matches in one, Sinner’s defeat was a bit of a rollercoaster despite being a straight-sets result. And in these matches lay lessons that the two youngsters will do well to remember.

This was a first appearance at a Major for Musetti, who made his ATP Tour main draw debut in Dubai last year. He defeated Stanislas Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori at the Rome Masters in 2020, and backed that up with victories against Diego Schwartzman, Frances Tiafoe and Grigor Dimitrov in Acapulco at start of 2021. And in his very first Grand Slam match at Roland Garros this year, he got the better of 13th seed David Goffin in straight sets.

Sinner, meanwhile, came into this year’s French open seeded 18th. He had reached the quarter-finals at this tournament last year before becoming the youngest player since 2008 to win an ATP title with a superb run at the Sofia Open. He followed that up with a runners-up finish at the 2021 Miami Open and it wasn’t a surprise to see him navigate through the first week of Roland Garros again.

Two matches in one

At the 2019 Australian Open, Musetti won the juniors title as Djokovic lifted the seniors trophy for a record seventh time. The gulf in stature between the two players was immense heading into their clash, but the first two sets saw the youngster serve a reminder of why he is rated so highly.

It’s tough to find a real weakness in Musetti’s game. With the forehand, he can flatten the ball, generate good top-spin, pull out the defensive squash shot, and change directions with ease. And with the single-handed backhand, he can send bullets down the line and use the slice effectively. He’s got good hands too and rarely panics at the net. His USP, though, is his ability to thrill…the fearlessness in his shot-making.

But against Djokovic, talent can only get you so far. He has seen it all on a tennis court and especially at a Major, where his ambition is admittedly at its peak, you can count on him to fight tooth and nail till the very end.

In the first two sets, Musetti played his best tennis to earn a 7-6, 7-6 lead. He used a perfect mix of flair and patience to get the better of the 18-time Grand Slam champion, showing the much-needed awareness to slug it out to construct points.

However, after two gruelling sets, the match turned on its head in the most stunning fashion. All of a sudden, Djokovic found his range completely and Musetti started missing shots he had been making consistently. The veteran hadn’t been playing particularly badly up until then but he had definitely taken his game several notches higher. And the youngster, meanwhile, had lost his zing entirely out of nowhere.

Djokovic won 16 of the last 17 games before Musetti retired when he was down 0-4 in the decider. He revealed later on that he had cramps and pain in his lower back, but it wasn’t clear when all this began. It was a disappointing end to what had been a thrilling battle for the most part.

Testing the king

Unlike Musetti, Sinner failed to take his fourth round match on Monday to a decider. However, it’s worth remembering he was facing arguably the toughest challenge in all of sport: taking on Rafa Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Despite the one-sided 7-5, 6-3, 6-0 scoreline in favour of Nadal, Sinner did manage to show sparks of brilliance and raise a few concerns for the 13-time Roland Garros champion.

The match ebbed and flowed in an interesting manner:

Games Won by
First 2 Nadal
Next 4 Sinner
Next 1 Nadal
Next 1 Sinner
Next 8 Nadal
Next 3 Sinner
Last 8 Nadal

Nadal had things in control for most of the match but Sinner had his moments in bursts in the first two sets and they definitely tested his opponent.

Sinner’s booming groundstrokes, especially his backhand which he uses to dictate points, are a major strength for him. After being broken in his first service game, he decided to play freely and started taking the ball early, from closer to the baseline. For a tall guy, he moves swiftly on the court and the extra balls he put back seemed to rattle Nadal at one point.

After being a game away from taking the opener, he lost eight games in a row to trail 0-4 in the second set. But he earned consecutive breaks of serve for the second time in the match and capitalised on the rare signs of tentativeness shown by Nadal.

However, from that point on, the four-time defending champion slammed the door shut like only he can. Sinner wasn’t struggling physically and didn’t do an awful lot wrong, but Nadal had buckled down and seemed to have entered that zone in which he hardly puts a foot wrong (he had two unforced errors in the third set).

Lessons from the masters

Both Musetti and Sinner will rue their missed opportunities and wonder what could’ve been.

Musetti had impressed in ATP tournaments but Djokovic showed him that best-of-five matches at Majors are another ball game altogether. The Serb was struggling to find his spots in the first two sets, even missing his bread-and-butter backhand down the line on a number of occasions, but as he has done so often in his career, he hustled and hustled till he found a way back.

Even when he was down two sets to love, there wasn’t a single weak moment in Djokovic’s body language. Musetti would’ve walked off the winner if this was a tour match, but to win three sets requires a different kind of physical and mental strength. And the lesson provided by one of the fiercest competitors in the sport’s history will stand Musetti in good stead.

For Sinner too, there was a lot to learn from Nadal. The 20-time Grand Slam champion admitted after the match that he was too passive after gaining a lead in the first set. He felt he was playing from too far behind the baseline and allowing his opponent to be aggressive. And that right there is a part of Nadal’s genius: he identified a mistake, didn’t let it overwhelm him, and went about trying to rectify it immediately.

So often in tennis, or in any other sport for that matter, we see players succumb to weak moments or phases and let things spiral out of control. But what sets champions apart is their ability to never stop believing in an eventual victory for them. As Djokovic and Nadal did just that yet again, two youngsters primed for great things could take a leaf or two out of the legends’ playbooks.