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Rune Waxes as Sinner Wanes

By Giri Nathan

There’s no more professional tennis to be played in 2022. Just a couple odd exhibitions in the petrostates, and a couple fat checks to be collected by the sport’s flashiest names. Now that the elite are loafing around like the rest of us, I’ll be looking ahead to the 2023 season on both tours, considering one riser, one faller, and one mystery box. This week it’s the ATP. 

RISING: Holger Rune

The 19-year-old Dane made his first headlines for terrible reasons. Last year in Biella, en route to his first Challenger title, he shouted antigay slurs, which netted him a 1,500-euro fine, roughly a quarter of his prize money. This spring, he snubbed Caspar Ruud at the net after losing their French Open quarterfinal, kicking off a locker room scandal so stupid it’s not even worth recounting the details here—rest assured that there’s beef between the similarly surnamed Scandinavians. Now Rune is proving himself on pure tennis terms. He finished the year with a 19–2 run, taking out six top 10 players. Chief among them was Novak Djokovic, who tested his occasional hitting partner in a nerve-shredding three-setter for the Paris Masters title. Rune survived a 17-minute final-service game to win 3–6, 6–3, 7–5, demonstrating possession of the fabled “clutch gene,” picking up 1,000 points, and briefly joining Carlos Alcaraz as the only teens in the top 10. (For the flukiest reason did he not finish the year in that elite company: He failed to defend 23 late-season points from Challengers, which allowed Hubie Hurkacz to bump him down to No. 11.) Rune seems to have conditioned his way out of his early-career cramping issues. He is a tremendous mover with technically pristine strokes. He also has Patrick Mouratoglou in his box, which you are free to interpret however you wish. Carlos Alcaraz is no longer the only prodigy in his cohort; he’ll have to handle the fist pumps and snarls of the kid born just one week earlier than him.

FALLING: Jannik Sinner
LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 05: Jannik Sinner of Italy waves to the crowd as he leaves centre court after his defeat to Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day nine of The Championships Wimbledon 2022 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 05, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Frey/TPN/Getty Images)

On paper, it’s silly to locate disappointment in a season that contained three major quarterfinals and a 250-level title. But I expect a lot from the 21-year-old Sinner. Some people were brought into this world to boom a tennis ball to dust, and this loose-limbed Italian is one of them. One glance at his peak tennis—best seen in a five-setter against Carlos Alcaraz in this year’s US Open quarterfinal, my ATP match of the year, with an entirely justified 46-minute highlight reel—could convince me that Sinner can win any title he wants. But in truth he’ll have to repair a few key elements in his game to improve on his 3–9 record against top 10 opponents this season. A weak serve, revamped this year, remains a liability; Sinner lost that quarterfinal to Carlitos despite a match point in the fourth set on his racquet. Injury prevention should be another priority, as he tweaked a knee, sprained the same ankle twice, and retired from three matches. Stamina and sustained focus to close out matches would be welcome additions. (At Wimbledon he became the latest youthful victim to a Novak Djokovic down-two-sets comeback.) To evolve beyond ball-bashing, he’ll need more variety in his shot repertoire and more comfort stepping into the court. Sinner ended last year with match points on Daniil Medvedev at the ATP Finals. He ended this year with an injury-marred first-round loss in Paris to No. 61 Marc-Andrea Huesler and a No. 15 ranking. To say that he’s falling is simply to recognize that the competition, plus or minus three years, is getting knotty; it’ll take lots of work, in the weight room and on the practice court with new coach Darren Cahill, to elbow his way back into the elite.

MYSTERY BOX: Ben Shelton

Caspar Ruud had the season of his life and nearly secured the No. 1 ranking; he also lost in Cincinnati to an American college player. That loss is looking less suspect by the day, because Ben Shelton turned pro soon after and hasn’t wasted a second since. From winning the NCAA singles title in the spring, to defeating the then world No. 5 in the summer, to crushing the Challenger tour all fall, it’s been a transformative calendar year for the son of former world No. 55 Bryan Shelton. He wound down by reeling off three Challenger titles in three weeks, becoming the first player ever to do so. That was enough to sneak him inside the top 100, landing at No. 97. Ben’s tennis surely has its rough spots. There’s also alluring upside. He’s a 6-foot-4 lefty with a nasty serve—he clocked 139 mph in a first-round US Open loss—and an appetite for net play. No clue what happens from here, but he’s a good watch.

Above: Is there a handsomer trophy than the Paris Masters trophy? (Getty) 


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