Jannik Sinner’s rise has been so rapid that it is easy to forget that just two years ago he was preparing to play at the NextGen ATP Finals in Milan. Winning that event, when he was still only 18, catapulted him into the consciousness of the tennis-watching world and the ensuing 24 months have been – global pandemic apart – largely plain sailing for the Italian sensation. But two defeats in the past week, first in Vienna and then in Paris, have been damaging. They have not only almost certainly cost him a chance to compete at the first ATP Tour Finals to be held in Turin. Even more importantly, they have also prompted a few questions, perhaps for the first time, about whether he will become the multiple Major-winner that he has long appeared destined to be.
That may seem like an over-reaction to two narrow losses, but in their own individual way both the collapse against Frances Tiafoe in the Erste Bank Open semi-final in Vienna and the straight-sets defeat by Carlos Alcaraz in the second round of the Rolex Paris Masters were troubling.
First, Sinner seemed to be cruising to certain victory against Tiafoe, winning the first set of their match comfortably and then going up a break in the second set. Coming on the back of a truly outstanding run of form, which encompassed winning the European Open in Antwerp and virtually dismantling a succession of fine players, including Diego Schwartzman and Casper Ruud, in an Emma Raducanu-like run of 20 straight sets, Sinner was beginning to appear almost unbeatable. Indeed, Tiafoe appeared to be conceding as much when he literally lay down on the court, on his back, midway through the second set.
Of course, we now know that Tiafoe is as capable of playing possum, i.e. feigning injury or even acceptance of defeat, as the greatest player of possum in tennis, Novak Djokovic. (Given his spiritual resemblance to the antipodean marsupial, no wonder the great Serb has always felt at home in Australia, winning in Melbourne a remarkable nine times.) As Sinner’s level dipped slightly, Tiafoe literally came roaring back, proving that he is arguably the greatest crowd-surfer in tennis – metaphorically, rather than literally – since Jimmy Connors, as he seemed to high-five every Viennese within touching distance while turning the tide in the match, to the point that he eventually won in three sets, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.
Apparently, Sinner voiced the opinion afterwards that he felt Tiafoe may have gone a little too far in attempting to bring the crowd on court with him, but in reality Tiafoe’s tactics were entirely legitimate. Perhaps it is because Sinner himself is so icily self-composed that he was particularly troubled by the American’s apparent rabble-rousing, but it is surely something that he must learn to contend with, not just against Tiafoe but against other players who may try to enlist the crowd’s support against the Italian Iceman.
Damaging as the collapse against Tiafoe was, the defeat in Paris to Alcaraz was arguably even worse, precisely because the 18-year-old Spaniard is Sinner’s greatest rival, indeed arguably his only real rival, when it comes to identifying the next young superstar of tennis. The match was close, with Alcaraz eventually winning 7-6, 7-5, and enjoying all the luck in the first-set tiebreak, with several net cords falling his way. Nevertheless, there was no doubt that Alcaraz consistently had the better of Sinner, demonstrating his remarkable combination of power and flair, such that at his absolute best he almost looks like a hybrid of Nadal and Federer, which often left the tall, even gangly Sinner looking flat-footed and a little underpowered by comparison.
That defeat almost certainly ended Sinner’s chances of making the ATP Tour Finals in Turin, which will be a disappointment not only to Sinner himself but to the event’s organisers and sponsors. Matteo Berrettini, the Italian No.1, may already have qualified, but there is no doubt that Sinner is regarded as the better long-term prospect and the one more likely to become only the third Italian man to win a Major, after the great Nicola Pietrangeli (who won the French Open twice, in 1959 and 1960) and Adriano Panatta (who triumphed at Roland Garros once, in 1976).
There is still every chance that Sinner will become the third member of Italy’s holy trinity of men’s tennis. For all the disappointment of the last week, Sinner should remember that he has still entered the World’s Top 10 for the first time and at an age younger than Roger Federer did (if only by a couple of days). And for all his own callow youth, Sinner has one of the oldest and wisest heads in tennis working alongside him.
Riccardo Piatti, Sinner’s coach, has already coached several players in and even into the Top 10, including Novak Djokovic, Ivan Ljubičić and Milos Raonic. With his heavy-lidded eyes and air of apparently perpetual exhaustion, he provides quite a contrast with the red-haired and seemingly perpetually alert Sinner. But there is every chance that Piatti and Sinner will form one of the truly great coach-player partnerships in tennis, one to compare with Bergelin-Borg, Gullikson-Sampras (a partnership that was only cut short by Tim Gullikson’s tragically early death through cancer) and Djokovic-Vajda.
Piatti already has form in picking Sinner up from a deeply disappointing defeat, namely the one he suffered to Alcaraz when he was 18 and Alcaraz only 16. Having swept virtually everyone else aside as a junior, Sinner was apparently devastated to lose to Alcaraz, whereas Piatti regarded it as wholly beneficial, because it reminded the remarkably talented Sinner that he, too, is a mere tennis mortal. As Bill Gates famously put it, “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure”. If Sinner can learn the lessons of the two painful defeats that he has suffered this week, there is every chance that he will be competing in Turin at the end of the season throughout the next decade, or for however long the ATP Tour Finals are staged there.
Main Photo from Getty Images