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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Jannik Sinner shows shades of the Big Three

It’s not just the unreal reach that makes him dangerous. Coupled with his gritty mentality, he can pack a punch off both wings.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: May 22, 2021 7:53:48 am
Italy's Jannik Sinner in action during his round of 32 match against Spain's Rafael Nadal (Source: Reuters)

As Alexander Bublik approached the net, he had a smile much bigger than the opponent who had just beaten him. With a slight shake of the head, he said to Jannik Sinner, “You are not human, man. You are 15-year-old and you play like this. Good job.”

The vanquished Kazakh, the current World No 38 with a game very easy on the eye, had been blown away by the power and tenacity of the 19-year-old in the Miami Masters quarterfinal in early April. Bublik would later explain his comments.

“He’s not (human). That’s a fact,” he’d say. “I asked him if he’s human or not, because for me, it’s very surprising that the guy at his age has this mental toughness that many, many other players don’t have. I called him a robot a couple of times during the match, but I do it in a very sincere way because he’s a really, really great player.”

That’s just one way to describe the young Italian who just a month back broke into the top 20 – he’s currently on No. 17. And the highlight reels second that. A YouTube compilation of his best shots (so far) did the rounds last year, where the skinny ginger-haired teen would sprint around court and play devastatingly powerful shots – nay, winners – on the stretch. Naturally, the comparisons to the Big 3 of tennis – the other often-considered super-human elements in the sport – weren’t far behind.

Shades of the Big 3

His stoic temperament was likened to the straight-faced Roger Federer. His flexibility, balance and ability to play a winning shot from the most unlikely position drew similarities with Novak Djokovic. His topspin shots, particularly the backhand, trumped the rate of spin that Rafael Nadal puts on the ball. According to the ATP, Sinner put an average of 1858 revolutions per minute on his backhand – more than any other player – compared to the 1252 rpm Nadal generated.

He certainly did give Nadal an unexpected fight when they met at the French Open quarterfinal last year. It was Sinner’s first experience on the fabled Parisian clay, and he became the youngest player since Djokovic in 2006 to reach that stage, and the youngest Roland Garros debutant since Nadal in 2005 to reach the final eight.

That French Open run prompted Carlos Moya, Nadal’s coach to contact Sinner to ask if he’d like to be Nadal’s sparring partner during the 2021 Australian Open quarantine.

Again, the comparisons began to build-up. But Sinner remained unbothered by them.

“Breaking the top 20 at this age at the end of the day is quite good. But it’s not about rushing rankings. It’s about working and improving everyday,” he tells The Indian Express.

“Everyone is talking about me because I’m young, which is normal. But at the end of the day, I’ve only won two tournaments, okay, maybe even the Next Gen Finals. But I haven’t won anything (of great significance). I’m more focused about improving now.”

For the record, the ATP 250 titles he won in Sofia (end of 2020) and in Melbourne (his first event of 2021) made him the youngest Tour-level winner since former World No 4 Kei Nishikori (18) in 2008, the youngest two-time champion since then 19-year-old Djokovic in 2006, and youngest to win two consecutive titles since Nadal (19) in 2005.

To draw further comparisons, Federer won his first tour title in Milan, which is where Sinner announced himself by winning the ATP Next Gen Finals in 2019. Incidentally, Federer’s first title came in 2001, the year Sinner was born.

Yet what makes Sinner’s rapid rise all the more remarkable is that he started treating tennis as a full-time sport only five years ago. Born in San Candido, a Northern Italian village in the South Tyrol mountains near the Austrian border, his first love – now a fond hobby – was skiing. And he was quite good at it too.

“When I was growing up in that part of Italy where there is so much snow, everyone is interested in skiing,” he says. “At that age I was also interested in football, so tennis was the third sport, not even second.

“But in football, I felt the difference could not be made from my side, but the entire team. So I put football away at some point.

On ice and now clay

“In skiing, I was the Italian champion in 2008 and was second in 2012. You have to go down a hill for maybe 90 seconds, and if you make one mistake then it’s over. In tennis, you can play two hours, make many mistake and still win the match. When I think back about that, it’s a good decision to go into tennis.”

The start in tennis was slow, and he’d never really make a big splash in the junior level. But under the tutelage of veteran coach Riccardo Piatti, who has previously trained the likes of Maria Sharapova, Ivan Ljubicic (Federer’s current coach) and even Djokovic, Sinner started hitting the right notes soon after turning pro in 2018.

And perhaps it was that skiing background that gave him the flexibility to play on the stretch. It’s perhaps another similarity to Djokovic – who was a fond skier in his early days.

“Skiing helped a lot with balance,” he adds.

It’s not just the unreal reach that makes him dangerous. Coupled with his gritty mentality, he can pack a punch off both wings.
“He’s got almost the same speed of shot on forehand and backhand,” Federer had said of him at the 2020 Australian Open. “And he also has great footwork for a big guy, don’t forget how tall he is (6’2 – the same as Djokovic).”

Sinner jokes that, given his age, it’s possible he’s still growing in height: “It can be. For me, this is enough. But you never know.”

In the next few weeks he will be travelling to Paris once again to compete in his second French Open. He carries with him the lessons of that previous meeting with Nadal there.

“When I played Rafa, it was a test for me to see where I am, where my level is,” Sinner says.

“This was the match I was looking for knowing he’s the king of clay. That was the test to see where I am. Now things are changing, I’m growing a little bit. But you need those kinds of tournaments to see where you are.”

It was certainly a tournament that showed the entire tennis fraternity who he was.

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