Can Jannik Sinner Go All The Way At Indian Wells?

Jannik Sinner in action at the ATP Indian Wells Masters.

After reaching the semifinals at Indian Wells, Jannik Sinner is now just two games away from winning the biggest title of his career so far. The trouble is that to win those two games he will almost certainly have to beat the two most in-form male tennis players in the world right now, Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev.

Sinner’s Ascent To Stardom

Ever since he won the ATP NextGen Finals in his native Italy at the end of 2019, with a display of breath-taking power that led then ATP Chief Executive Chris Kermode to say that he had never seen anyone hit a tennis ball so hard, Sinner has appeared marked out for stardom. Despite the start of the global Coronavirus pandemic and the suspension of the ATP Tour just a few months later, he has continued to make steady progress, if not quite the spectacular ascent that his NextGen display had suggested he was capable of.

At the end of 2020, as the world, including professional tennis, gradually began to return to something remotely resembling normality, Sinner achieved two more major milestones. First, he reached the last eight of a Major, when he faced Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinal of the rearranged and “autumnal” French Open. In a match played in front of virtually nobody but the two players’ entourages and that finished after midnight, Sinner nevertheless played superbly to take the first set to a tie-break before eventually losing in straight sets, 6-7 (4-7) 4-6 6-1. However, he at least matched the great Spaniard in one respect, as he became the first debutant to reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros since Nadal himself in 2005.

Then, almost at the very end of 2020, Sinner won his first ATP title, the Sofia Open. In the final, he defeated Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, a stunningly gifted serve-volleyer who would surely have gone much further in his career but for injuries, 6–4 3–6 7–6 (7–3). And the fact that he beat an older and therefore much more experienced opponent in a final-set tiebreak appeared to be proof that Sinner had the mental toughness to go with his physical attributes, especially that fearsome forehand.

A Superb Start To 2023

Since that first fantastic full year as a professional, from the NextGen triumph to winning in Sofia, Sinner’s rise has slowed somewhat. In large part, that is down to comparison with the even more astonishing arrival and ascent of Carlos Alcaraz, who has proven himself to be the once-in-a-generation talent that Sinner himself had initially appeared. However, if Alcaraz is taken out of the equation, it is still possible to argue that Sinner has continued to progress impressively, especially at the start of this season.

Sinner enjoyed a good Australian Open. He may only have reached the fourth round, but he was unlucky not to go further after losing a five-set classic to Stefanos Tsitsipas, who of course went on to finish runner-up in the tournament. Then, even more impressively, he reached the final of the Rotterdam Open, where he took the first set against Daniil Medvedev before eventually losing 5–7 6–2 6–2.

However, it is the past week and a half at Indian Wells that has really suggested that Sinner might be about to fulfil all the extraordinary predictions made about him as a teenager, before the emergence of Alcaraz, when it seemed that he might be the next great male player to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.

His Indian Wells Adventure So Far

Sinner advanced serenely to the quarterfinals in California with three straight-sets victories over three veterans, Richard Gasquet, Adrian Mannarino and Stan Wawrinka. But in his last eight clash with defending champion Taylor Fritz he really showed that he might finally make the step up to challenge for Masters and even Major titles.

It was at Indian Wells a year ago that Fritz had made his own breakthrough, when he won his first ATP 1000 event by beating Rafael Nadal in the final. Indeed, the American was the first man to defeat Nadal in 2022, after the Spaniard had made a stunning start to the season, which included winning the Australian Open to claim his 21st Major and break the three-way tie with Djokovic and Federer on 20 Majors.

Fritz has almost visibly grown in stature since that debut Masters triumph and that was evident again in his match with Sinner, especially when he came roaring back to win the second set after losing the first. However, as the match entered its endgame at 4-4 in the third set, it was Sinner, not Fritz, who raised his game, breaking the big-serving American in an almost epic ninth game before serving out to win 6-4.

Perhaps the highpoint of the victory over Fritz came in that decisive game in the third set, when at one point the usual power-hitting of the two players was replaced by a succession of short, sliced shots, during which exchange the ball barely rose more than a foot or two above the surface of the court. It was a wonderful demonstration of the variety of Sinner’s game (and, to be fair, Fritz’s game, too), showing that he has the finesse to match his obvious power. Although Fritz eventually won that point, it seemed to take so much out of him that he ended up losing the game.

The result of the match was also a further vindication of Darren Cahill’s decision to work with Sinner at the end of last year. The great Australian coach, who has guided Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Simona Halep to Grand Slam Singles titles, clearly only works with players who he believes have a genuine chance of winning a Major, so his willingness to work with Sinner must have been an enormous boost for the young Italian (who, rather remarkably, is still only 21). And certainly Cahill’s trademark coolness was evident in the unflappability that Sinner himself showed at the end of the Fritz match.

But Now Things Just Get Harder

However, for all of Sinner’s achievements in general in 2023 and in particular at Indian Wells over the last 10 days or so, things will only get harder for him going into the final weekend. That is because he will face one, if not two, of the players who might just be forming a new Big Three in men’s tennis.

Carlos Alcaraz’s quarterfinal with Felix Auger-Aliassime followed that of Sinner and, as he has done so often throughout his still nascent career, the young Spaniard largely upstaged the young Italian. Although the Sinner-Fritz match was undeniably closer, going to three sets, Alcaraz’s display against Auger-Aliassime, who had beaten him three times in the autumn (albeit with one of those matches being ended by an Alcaraz injury), was arguably on another level.

In particular, the fifth game of the first set, when Alcaraz finally broke the Canadian’s serve for the first time in all of those matches, was one of the finest single games of tennis seen this year. Auger-Aliassime defended his serve heroically, but Alcaraz, once again showing all the endless imagination that he seems to have inherited from his hero Federer, eventually broke him. And thereafter, he never looked back, ending Auger-Aliassime’s apparent hoodoo over him by winning in straight sets, 6-4 6-4.

Judged purely on their quarterfinal displays, Alcaraz will be the strong favourite against Sinner in their semifinal. However, Sinner will draw huge encouragement from some of his most recent matches with the 19-year-old Spaniard. Having beaten him at Wimbledon in the fourth round last year, he then virtually whupped him in the Croatian Open just a few weeks later, winning 6–7 (5–7) 6–1 6–1 and inflicting on Alcaraz what was probably the most comprehensive defeat of his extraordinary 2022.

Of course, Alcaraz ended up having the last laugh over Sinner in New York, when he beat him in the quarterfinals in a five-set classic, despite Sinner having a match-point against him, en route to winning his debut Major Singles title.

Alcaraz will certainly start as favourite against Sinner, especially given his own triumphant return to form after a four-month injury lay-off at the end of last season and the start of this one. And even if Sinner somehow defeats Alcaraz to reach the final, the likelihood is that he will face another major challenge there in the form of Daniil Medvedev. The giant, gangly, genius that is Medvedev appears to have returned to his very best – i.e. Major-winning – form after an indifferent 2022 and will be a strong favourite to reach his fourth final in succession when he faces Frances Tiafoe in the other semifinal this weekend.

The Last Yard Is The Hardest Yard

This is the scale of the challenge facing Sinner and indeed any other male player who thought that things would inevitably get easier after the era of the Big Three finally came to an end with Federer’s retirement, which may yet be followed in the next year or so by Nadal’s retirement if his apparently unending injury woes continue. Djokovic may be the last of them still standing and playing at his best, but the return to form of both Alcaraz and Medvedev suggests that they will soon be completing the world’s top three with Djokovic.

However, if any other male player is likely to be the new Andy Murray and become “The Fourth Man” to challenge any new Big Three, there is every chance that it will be Sinner. He has the game, the mental toughness and now the Major-winning coach to see him take the final steps in his career and become, first, a Masters Champion and eventually a Major Champion. Indian Wells this weekend would be the perfect place to start.

Main photo credit: Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY NETWORK