Jannik Sinner in 19
The meteoric rise of Jannik Sinner was, unquestionably, one of tennis’ biggest stories in 2019. In his age-18 season, the Tyrolese shattered all odds, climbing from world No. 553 to No. 78. Such steep ascent resulted in Sinner questionably earning the Newcomer of the Year Award over Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Typically, it takes quite some time for a successful junior to fully transition to the pros. The weekly routine at the Futures level is a grind, while pretty much everyone at the Challengers is solid. Only those who possess supreme shotmaking ability or a Spartan mentality are capable of breezing through these tours in little time.
Destroying timelines like bona fide stars
I proceeded to delve into the ranking history of the Big 3 plus another precocious talent such as Alexander Zverev to compare their respective surges back in the day to Sinner’s. Four out of five reached the Top 100 shortly after their 18th birthday. The exception was Rafael Nadal, who was immersed in an arms race with contemporary rival Richard Gasquet and reached the milestone at 16 years and 10 months.
Following two impressive showings at Antwerp and Vienna, Sinner entered the Top 100 on October 28 at No. 93. Twelve months earlier, the Italian sat at No. 785. Roger Federer (No. 95 from No. 876), Nadal (No. 96 from No. 772) and Zverev (No. 85 from No. 716) experienced similarly sudden growth in the 52 weeks prior to their Top 100 debut. Meanwhile, the improvement of Novak Djokovic (No. 94 from No. 360) was not as drastic.
Gargantuan improvement out of nowhere
The thing is, it was expected from these guys to burn stages quickly. They had either dominated (Federer, Zverev) the junior circuit or made a splash in a limited number of events (Nadal, Djokovic).
On the other hand, Sinner’s two J4 trophies in 2017 (Doha & Barcelona) weren’t really a premonition of greatness. Later that year, he lost in the final round of qualifying at a J2 in Sanxenxo (Spain), a tournament Alex de Miñaur (more on him later) had won as a 15-year-old in 2014.
After a somewhat quiet 2018, Sinner kicked off his 2019 campaign in Monastir (Tunisia), where he played three $15,000 Futures, collecting a grand total of two match wins. At that point, not even the most delusional diehard fan would bet a penny on Sinner winning three Challengers, let alone smothering the field at the Next Gen Finals.
College football folks gush over Joe Burrow’s unforeseen transformation from run-of-the-mill quarterback to runaway Heisman Trophy winner. The LSU quarterback entered the season as a 200/1 long shot, yet proved everyone wrong. Was Sinner even among the candidates to win Newcomer of the Year? If so, he for sure was the biggest underdog to earn the accolade.
Hard court, his main stronghold
Across all levels, Sinner collected 62 wins in 2019, making it hard to pinpoint a few highlights. His coming out party at the Bergamo Challenger was special. So was his North American swing, in which he lifted the Lexington Challenger crown and qualified for the US Open main draw, stealing one set from 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka.
However, the last two weeks he competed were even more remarkable in my eyes. In Milan, not only did he hold his own, but he bullied the opposition. Sure, he dropped a dead rubber against Ugo Humbert, but he delivered when he actually needed it. Frances Tiafoe, Miomir Kecmanovic and Alex de Miñaur all bit the dust against Sinner.
The Italian was literally unplayable in the final, prevailing 4-2 4-1 4-2 over Demon. The Aussie, the defending finalist, found no answer to Sinner’s whiplashes. Keep in mind that De Miñaur went a strong 13-3 in his final four tournaments of the year (Basel, Paris Masters, Next Gen Finals and Davis Cup Finals). During that stretch, the world No. 18 speedster upended the likes of Roberto Bautista (No. 10), David Goffin (No. 11) and Denis Shapovalov (No. 15). Aside from Sinner, only Roger Federer and Stefanos Tsitsipas, not precisely scrubs, were able to subdue De Miñaur on a European indoor court.
Instead of savoring the Milan glory and call it a season, Sinner opted to play a challenger the very next week. Of course, it wasn’t any regular challenger. The Tennis Club Ortisei is a mere 90 kilometers away from San Candido, his hometown. Perhaps, it was his final chance to play there without it being odd, ranking wise.
A mishap against a lesser-ranked foe on such a fast court would be understandable. Nevertheless, Sinner kept his foot on the accelerator throughout the week, sweeping all five opponents in straights.
Setbacks were scarce
Those first few Futures aside, the worst tournament of Sinner’s magical 2019 campaign was probably the Villena Challenger. He was defeated 6-2 3-6 6-3 by then-15-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who has the potential to be a world-beater on clay in a few years. Sinner squandered a 3-0 lead in the decider. His movement on clay, at that point, was lackluster. But avid learners improve quickly and, later that month, Sinner reached the Ostrava Challenger final on clay.
Predicting that his future is bright would be an understatement. Sinner owns the tools to cause a headache or two at the big tournaments right away. His first stop will be the stacked Canberra Challenger, which features eight Top 100 players. Theoretically, there should be some bumps on the road during his first full season on tour, but who knows anymore? Well, we know for a fact his tennis game is light years ahead of his dance moves.