I love it when you watch a young tennis player burst onto the scene. I remember vividly that Andy Murray match against Thomas Johansson at Queens back in 2005. The teenage Scot had earned a few notable wins on tour, and his name was already being mentioned as a possible replacement for the Henman-Rusedski pivot on which British hopes at Wimbledon had been pinned for the past decade. But suddenly here he was against Johansson, a Grand Slam champion, pushing him all the way in three tight sets live on TV.
Murray ultimately lost the match, but from that point on everyone was acutely aware of his unique talents. The following week he reached the 3rd round at Wimbledon, eventually falling to David Nalbandian in five epic sets. He has never looked back.
Jannik Sinner’s performances at this week’s NextGen finals in Milan bear a striking resemblance to Murray’s efforts in London that summer. The 18-year old Italian has already enjoyed a sterling year, rising more than 400 places into the top 100, qualifying for his first Grand Slam in New York and registering an impressive win against Gael Monfils.
But those results came when nothing was expected of him. No-one knew his name. This week he faces the pressure of not only being the wildcard entry in Milan, but also carrying the hopes of the partisan crowd entirely on his slender frame.
His response? Dominant wins against Frances Tiafoe and Mikael Ymer in the group stage followed by a thrilling victory over Miomir Kecmanovic in the semifinals. His only blot was a four set defeat at the hands of talented Frenchman Ugo Humbert, although it is worth noting the Italian had already secured his semifinal berth as group winner before stepping onto court.
But it would be wrong to focus only on the results. There is so much to like in the way Sinner plays tennis. From the back of the court he simply leathers the ball as hard as he can, particularly on his favoured backhand wing. No messing around with spins and slices. Full on aggression. Just fucking nail it. Its so good to watch, and must be an absolute nightmare to play against because he gives his opponents no time to build a point, grow into a rally or execute a gameplan.
During the semifinal against Kecmanovic, a fine player in his own right, Sinner took a while to get used to the pace and trajectory of his opponent’s shots. The Italian had only played 16 matches on the ATP tour before this week, so he lacks the experience to counteract unfamiliar patterns of play. But after losing the first set Sinner adjusted, went on the attack, and never threatened to ease off. There appeared nothing the Serb could do to stem the tidal wave of depth and power ploughing over the net. He looked utterly, and understandably, dejected after the match.
How do you defend against Sinner? Well, his opponent in the final Alex de Minaur might have a few ideas. The Australian, known for his speed around the court and ability to conjure miracle shots under extreme pressure, should have the temperament and skill to withstand Sinner’s raw talents. At 18 in the world, he is by far the more complete player and will start as heavy favourite to win the title.
But the Italian’s likely defeat will do nothing to dim his sparkling performances in Milan. Regardless of what happens tomorrow, this was his breakout week.