Next Gen ATP Finals: Champion Jannik Sinner punctuates breakout 2019 with a performance that belies his age

  • The 18-year-old Jannik Sinner from Italy, who was a wild card, defeated Alex de Minaur in the final of the NextGen Finals.

  • Sinner was primarily into skiing at the start of his teens and took up tennis only six years ago in 2014.

  • The Italian will enter 2020 as the shining light of the ATP's teenage brigade along with Felix Auger-Aliassime.

What's the right age to take up tennis full-time? 10? 8? Most coaches would say even younger; tennis is filled with stories of players who throw themselves into the sport before they can even tell what you get when you add two plus two.

That is why it's hard to shake off the feeling that something doesn't quite add up in the case of Jannik Sinner. The 18-year-old demolished Alex de Minaur in the final of the NextGen Finals in Milan on Saturday, but a result like this shouldn't really have been possible.

 Next Gen ATP Finals: Champion Jannik Sinner punctuates breakout 2019 with a performance that belies his age

Jannik Sinner of Italy holds the trophy after beating Australia's Alex De Minaur in the final of ATP Next Gen tournament. AP

You see, Sinner wasn't even a tennis player six years ago. Growing up in South Tyrol, Italy, a region that shares land with Austria (and the reason why he is as fluent in German as Italian), Sinner was primarily into skiing at the start of his teens. He was good enough at the sport to find himself among the top-ranked Italian skiers of his age group, and he also dabbled in football on and off. Tennis, meanwhile, remained more of a pastime than a serious interest, restricted to just two days of play every week.

"In our parts, the first sport is of course skiing," Sinner said. "I was second in Italy (in skiing), but at the end I decided to play tennis because I enjoyed it more," Sinner said.

Even when he did take up tennis seriously, joining the Piatti Tennis Academy in 2014, Sinner didn't go the conventional route. He refused to pack his schedule with junior events — he didn't enter a single junior Slam — and his highest ever junior ranking was a lowly 133. That probably explains why so little was heard about him before 2019; not many had even seen him play.

Why did Sinner eschew the junior tour for Futures and Challenger events? "I think one reason is because I'm here now at 18 years and I can play in the main draw of the US Open," he said. "I always was searching for the players who played better than me. I was trying to play at a higher level than I was...my team always saw me that I have this level to compete, so they let me do what I wanted."

Those are ambitious words, but Sinner has shown for a while now that he can walk the talk. Starting the year ranked No 551 in the world, Sinner won his first ATP Challenger event — at Bergamo — in February. He added another Challenger title at Lexington in August, becoming one of just 11 players ever to win multiple Challengers before turning 18. For perspective, the other members of that elite 11-member club include Novak Djokovic,
Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro.

Sinner is now ranked No 95 in the world; remarkably, that is higher than his highest-ever junior ranking. His list of high-profile victims this year includes Gael Monfils, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Steve Johnson, and you get the feeling he wants more. Sinner has climbed more than 450 spots in the space of 12 months, and that kind of meteoric rise tends to give you a heady mix of confidence and exhilaration.

"I want to be the best player not only in Italy, but maybe once I can say that I'm the best player in the world," Sinner declared before the start of the NextGen Finals. He is already one of the best NextGen players in the world despite being younger than his competition, so you can't fault him for false bravado.

Sinner looked a class apart right from his first match at the event in Milan, even though he got in only through a wildcard (his ranking wasn't high enough to earn direct qualification). The youngest player in the draw, Sinner brushed aside Frances Tiafoe and Michael Ymer without much trouble, announcing in no uncertain terms that he wasn't really the 'baby' of the group. And although he stumbled against Ugo Humbert (in what was a dead rubber of sorts as Sinner topped the group anyway), he righted the ship quickly against Miomir Kecmanovic in the semi-finals.

Many thought the final would be a closely contested affair. Leading up to the final, De Minaur himself had looked totally at ease with his game, the venue and the format. Having played the final here in 2018 too (losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas), 'Demon' was at his speediest best in the first four matches, tying his opponents into knots with his incredible defense and rapid-fire shot-making.

The Aussie didn't play a bad match in the final either. It's just that against Sinner, all of De Minaur's skills looked inadequate.

The Italian was at the peak of his powers in his last match of 2019, almost as though he was determined to give his raucous home crowd the perfect parting gift. Swatting aside short balls for fun, Sinner did something that is the hallmark of great players: he made his quality opponent look ordinary.

Standing at 6'2" and packing considerably more firepower than the Aussie, Sinner made De Minaur cover every inch of the court with his thunderbolts. His backhand (which by his own admission is his favorite shot) was solid when it needed to be — in the crosscourt exchanges — and vicious when it was directed down the line.

But it was the forehand that stole the show, repeatedly reducing even the super-quick De Minaur to a helpless spectator. Sinner hits his forehand flat and with plenty of oomph, generating the kind of effortless power that can take the racquet out of anyone's hand. And he hit so many winners off that wing yesterday that at times it looked like he was in a practice session, playing against an amateur hitting partner.

18-year-old Next Gen Finals champion as Jannik Sinner took up tennis only in 2014. AP

18-year-old Next Gen Finals champion as Jannik Sinner took up tennis only in 2014. AP

Sinner's movement is also surprisingly lithe for someone of his build, and promises to get even better as he grows into his body. The Italian's early exposure to skiing and football seems to have given him great balance on the tennis court too, and his rangy movement often caught De Minaur off-guard.

Most impressively of all, Sinner showed tremendous composure in the big moments. He faced nine break points in the match and saved all of them, nailing the big first serve or big forehand every time he needed to. Sinner gives the impression of someone who doesn't get too charged up for his matches, but it was his even-keeled approach against De Minaur that helped him stave off trouble every time he encountered it.

After Sinner put the finishing touches on his emphatic performance, the crowd erupted in unbridled joy — and that feeling accompanied him well into the post-match proceedings. "I never had this kind of support, even on the court," Sinner said later. "I don't know if Roger or Rafa are still enjoying these kinds of things. I'm young and I'm enjoying it."

This is Sinner's first brush with celebrity-hood, and it goes without saying he has a long way to go before he can make a habit out of it the way Federer and Nadal have. Sinner's first full year on tour in 2020 will have its own challenges, and he does still need to make a few improvements to his game — most notably his touch and reflexes at the net.

Moreover, it shouldn't be forgotten that the NextGen Finals is not a proper ATP tournament; its unique format (no-ad scoring, first to four games for a set) is largely the preserve of exhibitions.

That said, there's a reason why the last two winners of the NextGen Finals (Hyeon Chung and Stefanos Tsitsipas) went on to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open a couple of months later. The Milan event doesn't test your endurance or ability to withstand setbacks over the course of a long match, but it tests your ability to play under pressure in a way that no other tournament does.

The compact nature of the games and sets means that pretty much the entire match is like a tie-breaker, with every point being a 'big point'. And we only need to look at this year's Wimbledon final to know how much of a difference playing the big points well can make.

Sinner has shown that he can handle the pressure of a big point with aplomb, and that's half the battle won right there.

The Italian will enter 2020 as the shining light of the ATP's teenage brigade along with Felix Auger-Aliassime, but you can bet he won't restrict his competition merely to players of his own age. Just like his junior days, Sinner would want to compete against players a notch or two above his level — which should put the entire tour on high alert.

Sinner's journey has been the most meteoric of meteoric rises so far. Six years ago he wasn't even a full-time tennis player, and today he is on the cusp of challenging for the big titles in the sport. Do we dare to imagine where he will be six years from now?

Updated Date: Nov 10, 2019 18:43:17 IST