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Tennis

Jannik Sinner Booted And Rallied To His First Major Title

3:59 PM EST on January 30, 2024

Jannik Sinner with his Australian Open trophy
Andy Cheung/Getty Images

On a recent October evening, the signature red curls of Jannik Sinner disappeared into a large trash bin as he vomited. The lid provided a shred of privacy from an aggressively positioned cameraperson. At time of upchuck, Sinner was up 3-0 in the third set of his Beijing quarterfinal against Grigor Dimitrov. As many a gifted memesmith has observed, in retrospect, he might have been purging himself of the ability to lose.

Not that Sinner was a schlub in the pre-vomit era—he was a top prospect winding down the best season of his career, hitting the ball as big as anyone alive. He had yet to demonstrate that he could beat his best peers, when the stakes were highest. But over the last few months, Sinner checked off his outstanding items, building patiently toward this past Sunday, when the 22-year-old Italian claimed his first major title by beating Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3.

Sinner's post-puke heroism can be appreciated from several vantage points. In raw numbers: 28 wins, two losses, one withdrawal. In hardware: titles in Beijing and Vienna, a runner-up trophy at the ATP Finals, an enormous Davis Cup trophy as the star of Italy, and the first of many majors. In names left in his wake: the three best men's players, particularly on hard court. He snagged the 4-3 edge in his rivalry against Carlos Alcaraz. He beat Novak Djokovic in three of their last four meetings—and now at a major, with a little help from Djokovic's dysfunction. He took out Medvedev three times in best-of-three matches and then again over five sets in a major final. (Pre-puke, he'd gone 0-3 against Djokovic and 0-6 against Medvedev.) In this stretch, Sinner has won 10 of 11 matches against players ranked in the top five. In the process, he snuffed out any questions about his absolute capability to win these matches, leaving only the simpler question of whether he can replicate this success over time. The evidence in Melbourne was awfully persuasive.

Those blessed with ears and some proximity to Sinner have long believed in his pure talent to rip the tennis ball. But it wasn't until this month that he connected that central genius with the larger web of skills required for a successful major title run: consistent serving, energy conservation, recovery, tactical flexibility, focus, endurance in both short bursts and over long stretches, and the irrational self-belief that immunizes him from preemptive surrender against a guy who hasn't lost at Rod Laver Arena in six years. To win seven best-of-five matches over two weeks is a dizzying undertaking; talent with groundstrokes is just a fraction of it. Going into this Australian Open, Sinner had an inglorious 4-12 record playing top-20 players in major tournaments, but in this tournament he won all four of those meetings. Whatever his past struggles, he proved himself as the most efficient player of the fortnight, not even losing a set until Djokovic invited him into a familiar pain cave. Then, with his back against the wall, he outfoxed the hard-court master Daniil Medvedev.

The final was woozy and fascinating. Medvedev came out playing as aggressive as he ever has, striking his flat groundstrokes with unusual venom and conviction, and Sinner struggled to find his usual baseline power when confronted with those low skidding balls. A deep-positioned player long criticized for his reluctance to finish points in the front court, Medvedev crashed the net like some malevolent albatross, executing a handful of the best volleys I'd ever seen from him. Where was this coming from?

At the time, I suspected that Medvedev went aggressive because he didn't have enough gas in the tank to play his usual attritional style; he confirmed that afterward in press. It was the correct tactic, and it nearly got him over the finish line against a much fresher opponent who'd spent six fewer hours on court heading into the final. Medvedev locked in a two-set lead before he began to belie the toll of the three five-setters he'd slogged through. By the end of the match, he'd spent a record 24 hours and 17 minutes on court; he nearly became the first man ever to win a major after playing four five-setters.

Sinner leapt on the slight drop in quality from Medvedev, breaking serve at identical junctures of the third and fourth sets in those nervy 4-5 games. In the last stretch of this final, I learned a subtle point about endurance in tennis. Deep into the fourth and fifth sets, Medvedev still was able to grind out defensive rallies for 20 shots, but he lacked the burst to punch those groundstrokes as hard as he had at the outset of the match. Tennis is won with fine margins and the consequences were clear: Sinner had the legs to hang with him for 39 balls and the higher-end power to deliver the coup de grace.

Sinner's win should feel that much sweeter. As a first-time major finalist, he'd never been in a match with these stakes, and despite falling into a big scoreboard hole, nothing about his tennis faltered. He didn't break from his usual patterns, but simply kept at them until the points started going his way, drawing belief from each incremental success, starting into his box with cold-eyed steeliness. "I like to dance in a pressure storm," Sinner said afterward, and his tennis reflected the same. Ending points against a counterpuncher as sharp as Medvedev often requires changing the trajectory of a rally with a single decisive stroke. Sinner's down-the-line groundstrokes came in hotter and hotter as the match progressed, and he secured the championship, fittingly, with a volcanic running forehand right down the sideline.

Throughout the Australian Open, Sinner consistently heaped credit on the people surrounding him. In 2022, he split with his childhood coach, Riccardo Piatti, a decision he recently summed up with with flair: "I threw myself into the fire." He hired former player Simone Vagnozzi as his primary coach, brought in veteran coach Darren Cahill as another set of eyes, and has spent time patching up the technical and physical weaknesses in his game. Sinner has added on muscle and conquered his old issues with conditioning. Halfway through last season, his coaches had him tweak his service motion—he now brings both feet together into a "pinpoint" stance—which has sharpened him on both serve and return. For a reminder of the parallel drama unfolding in the player's box every match, just watch the faces from the Sinner camp as their boy lined up his championship-winning forehand. And though tennis is suffused with unenviable parent-child relationships that entangle the personal and professional, Sinner grew up in a relative refuge, playing soccer and skiing brilliantly enough that he could have gone pro on the slopes, too. "I wish that everyone could have my parents, because they always let me choose whatever I wanted to, even when I was younger," Sinner said in his victory speech. "I made also some other sports, and they never put pressure on myself. I wish this freedom is possible for as many young kids as possible."

Even within the narrow category of prodigy, careers move at their own pace. Sinner was chugging along steadily while Alcaraz, two years his junior, emerged as a tour-warping force of nature and took dramatic pogo jumps from milestone to milestone. Even as he bested Alcaraz in direct competition, Sinner lagged behind in overall body of work. Over the past four months, the Italian ejected his last doubts into a trash bin and made a convincing push to join Alcaraz on the highest plateau of the sport, alongside Djokovic and Medvedev. Now he's one of the tour's most balanced players, in every sense of that term: on both forehand and backhand, serve and return, defense and offense. It's hard to envision what deficits he has left. But, as befits a freakishly goal-oriented genius, Sinner sat behind the biggest trophy of his life and talked about how much further he still has to go. "It's a great moment for me and my team," he said. "But in the other way, we also know that we have to improve if we want to have another chance to hold a big trophy again."

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