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Tennis

Jannik Sinner Is Powered By Cheese And Can Really Boom The Tennis Ball

Jannik Sinner hits a forehand at the Miami Open
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The study of rising prospects isn’t as robust in tennis as it is in major team sports. There are at least two obvious reasons: Its statistics aren’t rich enough to feed into models for future performance, and there isn’t really anyone out there who stands to make money by detecting and drafting young talent. While this is an underexplored market for enterprising cheesemongers to get in on the ground floor, for now, just accept there isn’t a huge appetite for scouting and modeling, which is why we’re going to see an original metric. It’s called BSCOR (Ball Sounds Crazy Off The Racket). Bygone top-10 players like Juan Martin del Potro (shotgun) and Tomas Berdych (backfiring car) have excelled by this measurement. Scoring high on BSCOR is a great predictor for hitting the absolute piss out of the ball, for a long time. According to this obscure standard, a 19-year-old Italian named Jannik Sinner is next in line for greatness. Forehand, backhand, he booms them all.

Data collection for BSCOR is ideally done while pressed up against the fence of a practice court, but because of the pandemic I will make do with whatever I heard from my seats at the 2019 U.S. Open and the court mics on TV broadcasts. All pros hit the ball well and hard; some lucky few just have that uncanny pop. Hitting the ball as well as Sinner does requires not just—or not even primarily—strength, but rather the seamless coordination of each link, from bending knees to torquing torso to flexing wrist. It’s about staying loosey-goosey and letting energy transfer through all the links in that chain until, all of a sudden, the strings are moving fast enough to shear the fuzz off the ball. Good tennis is a matter of setting yourself up in the path of an incoming ball and timing this sequence just right, over and over again.

Sinner’s sense of timing is uncanny. When a meatheaded coach refers to something that “can’t be taught,” this is the sort of knack they have in mind. Watch him make contact with the tennis ball a few times and you’ll wonder why anybody bothers to hits the ball any other way. Sinner was a downhill skiing prodigy on his native slopes of northern Italy before turning his attention to tennis at 13. Good thing he did, because like del Potro or Berdych before him, the dude appears to have been born to make ungodly sounds with a tennis racket. BSCOR will not fail you. Heed your ears.

Ever since he took a set off Stan Wawrinka at that U.S. Open, Sinner has been ascending the men’s tour at an astonishing rate. In February 2018, he had no ATP ranking. By October 2019, he’d broken into the top 100. By October 2020, he was in the top 50, and would’ve been gotten higher if not for COVID-related rankings freezes. And after going 14-5 to start the 2021 season, including a giant-killing spree at this year’s Miami Open, the Italian is now ranked No. 23. He doesn’t turn 20 until August. (At No. 90, countryman Lorenzo Musetti is the only other teen ranked inside the top 100.) Reflecting on his progress in March, Sinner had this foodie analogy handy: “Compared to last year I have improved enormously, but there’s so much to do. It’s as if I’m trying to become a chef: Now I’m peeling carrots and potatoes. But at least I’m in the kitchen. Last year I was outside the kitchen.”

Last week at the Miami Open he peeled some notable potatoes, including world No. 22 Karen Khachanov, who plays a heavy and physical brand of baseline tennis. Two rounds later it was world No. 44, Alexander Bublik, a random number generator with a big serve and genius net touch, the kind of opponent who can easily rattle an inexperienced player who hasn’t yet learned how to grind straight through the crazy. “Are you human?” Bublik asked Sinner at the net, marveling at his opponent: “You are 15 years old, and you play like this?” In the semifinals it was world No. 12 Roberto Bautista Agut, hot off his own win over No. 2 Daniil Medvedev. The kid came back when down a set and 3-3, 0-40, and then again from 1-3 down in the third set, to close out the consummate veteran with a slew of winners. Sinner became the first teenager to play in the final of the Miami Open, which he lost to a solid Hubert Hurkacz as both players tightened up in the unfamiliar, rarefied territory of a Masters final.

I’ve heard enough alarming sounds: Sinner has the stuff to become a top-five player. Anointing the Next Big Thing on a tour that’s still pretty hung up on the Old Big Things is a doomed exercise, but he is as tempting a pick as they come. Those thunderous groundstrokes come fully supported: excellent lateral movement, footwork and balance that lets him produce lots of power even at a full stretch (with shades of Novak Djokovic), a steely on-court demeanor, a shocking resemblance to a red-haired Defector co-owner, and a Parmesan cheese sponsorship. If there is a weakness it is, curiously, his serve—winning just 69.8 percent of his first-serve points over the last year puts him at 65th on tour—but Sinner has a 6-foot-2 frame and time to figure it out. Given how he effortlessly he hits the balls coming at him at 75 mph, I’m willing to bet Teen Parmesan learns to hit the balls he tosses into the air himself.