12:30 AM GMT October 06, 2020
Jannik Sinner hails from San Candido, a village of just more than 3,000 near the Austrian border in northern Italy. Football is the most popular sport in the country, but not there.
“In our parts, the first sport is of course skiing,” Sinner said.
In 2008, he won a skiing championship for his age group. In 2012, he was second in Italy. All signs pointed towards Sinner becoming a skiing star.
Tennis was never a priority for most of his life. Sinner’s father gave him his first racquet when he was three. At seven, he did not touch a racquet for a year because he preferred football alongside skiing. After that, while still focussing on skiing, he played tennis twice a week until he was 13.
“When I went on court just two times in a week, I really enjoyed it. I just tried to enjoy and it was fun. It was just fun,” Sinner said last year. “But now it’s a little bit more than fun. Now it’s fun, but you want to go a little bit further and I think that makes this very important.”
On Tuesday, only six years later, Sinner will play 12-time champion Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros. The Italian is the first tournament debutant to reach the last eight since Nadal in 2005.
“He's young, he's improving every single week. So he's playing better and better and better. It will be a big challenge,” Nadal said. “It will be the first time playing against him on the Tour. I practised with him a couple of times, he has an amazing potential. He moves his hands very quick and he's able to produce amazing shots.”
Last Roland Garros, Sinner wasn’t even ranked highly enough to gain entry into qualifying. So how has this 19-year-old, who won last year’s Next Gen ATP Finals, become the talk of the tennis world?
According to his peers, Sinner is a generational talent. Italian veterans have known Sinner since before he prioritised tennis. Andreas Seppi was first introduced to him when Sinner was 12.
“For sure he’s a special kid because he’s the first guy in a Roland Garros quarter-final at that age since Djokovic and the first player in a Roland Garros quarter-final in his first appearance since Nadal, so you can put him with these guys already at his age,” Seppi said. “I think sometimes you just have some natural talent and he is one of them. He’s always had this easy power and I think you’re just born with that.”
Sinner is a skinny 6’2” and he will continue filling out his body with age. Some of the sport’s most powerful players — Stan Wawrinka and Karen Khachanov come to mind — look the part of a big bruiser. When they go after their shots, it’s clear they are trying to crush it. That’s not the case with Sinner. Even during practice, when he’s rallying with a friend, the ball flies off his racquet.
“Sometimes it’s like he’s playing another sport,” said 38-year-old Italian Paolo Lorenzi. “The ball is going so fast from his racquet. He’s still thin, he’s not so big. But the ball is going really, really fast.
“I practised a few times with Novak and the ball goes so easy, [Jannik is] a little bit like him. Novak still has much more control, but Jannik is going really fast. It’s pretty similar. Of course Novak at the beginning also made a little bit more mistakes, wasn’t as solid like he is now. So hopefully Sinner will do something like him.”
Lorenzi recalls playing doubles with Sinner, who was then 18, at last year’s European Open in Antwerp. In the first round, they played former Top 10 stars Oliver Marach and Jurgen Melzer. Lorenzi is the first to admit he is not a doubles stalwart, especially on an indoor hard court. The Italians triumphed 6-3, 6-1.
“When he was pushing hard, the doubles players didn’t play the volleys. They just moved out [of the way],” Lorenzi said. “The doubles players are really good at the net, they’re really focussed. But the ball from him is too fast. When I practise with him and then with other players, I have the feeling the ball is moving so slowly. I think it’s one of Jannik’s big qualities.”
Every ATP Tour star who is asked about Sinner praises his game. On Monday, reigning Nitto ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas said: “For sure, we can see a great future, see him do good things on the circuit. I would not be surprised if he has good wins again the top five and the top three. Why not? He has a very big game, [he is] a very talented player.”
But perhaps what will prove vital as he continues his climb is something not visible to the eye. Sinner is as cool as the snowy mountains he hails from.
At the same Antwerp event, Sinner reached his first ATP Tour semi-final, defeating Gael Monfils along the way.
“Fifteen, 20 minutes before the semi-final match we were in the locker room joking, smiling, laughing,” Lorenzi recalled. “It’s not easy for a guy who was 18 years old. It was such a big match for him, semi-finals of an ATP, but for him it was like an ordinary first round.”
Even when Sinner upset recent US Open finalist Alexander Zverev in four sets on Sunday to reach his first Grand Slam quarter-final, the Italian barely reacted. Most teens in his position would jump up and down or let out a roar. Sinner gave a muted fist pump. It’s like this is just another step on his journey to greatness.
“It's great to reach the quarter-finals here,” Sinner said. “I am quite calm, so even if inside I'm very happy, I don't show that so much. But I'm happy.”
Competing in a Grand Slam would intimidate many. Stepping on Court Philippe-Chatrier to play Nadal in a quarter-final would be nerve-wracking. But win or lose, Sinner will treat Tuesday’s clash as another step in his journey.
“Obviously I'm playing against Rafa here in Roland Garros. It's not the easiest thing, for sure. The record he has here, I think nobody can beat that. He is super confident here,” Sinner said. “[The goal is] always to go on court with the right attitude, trying to play your best tennis, which I have to do if I want to play on the same level as he plays.”
If Sinner stuns Nadal and hands the Spaniard just his third loss on the Parisian clay, it will be reminiscent of 19-year-old Roger Federer upsetting four-time defending champion Pete Sampras at 2001 Wimbledon. What’s amazing is that when Nadal lifted his first Coupe des Mousquetaires, Sinner was three. When the legendary lefty claimed his ninth Roland Garros title in 2014, the Italian was still focussed on skiing.
“He was skiing until six years ago professionally, so I think he could also be a good skier already at this time,” Seppi said. “Luckily for everybody, he chose tennis.”