By Giri Nathan
Jannik Sinner must’ve heard that I was talking smack. Okay, not smack exactly, but it did seem that it was getting crowded at the top, and that Sinner—who’d gone up two sets to none on Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, who’d had match point on Carlos Alcaraz at the US Open—would have to tighten up his game to keep up. He came into 2023 looking a little more muscular. But in Australia, he fell in five sets to Stefanos Tsitsipas, who’d also expelled him from the previous year’s tournament. With that loss, Sinner slunk to a 1–5 record against Tsitsipas, and, a little more troublingly, a 1–16 record against top-five players over his career. Not an auspicious start for our Parmesan-cheese-sponsored hero, who surely has the chops to insert himself into the top five sooner rather than later.
But it’s all been gold for Jannik Sinner since Australia. Indoor hard court is his happy place; he once won 20 straight sets on the surface back in the fall of 2021. But the courts in Montpellier were an exception to this general dominance. Sinner had never won a match there until last week, when he broke that curse emphatically, dispatching his countryman Lorenzo Sonego, the breakout 18-year-old Frenchman Arthur Fils, and that serve-and-volley demon Maxime Cressy. Sinner was the only player to break Cressy’s serve all week, pulling it off in his final return game. That title brought Sinner to 7–1 in tour finals, sort of a reverse Félix Auger-Aliassime arc to his career. This was a week of long-sought good serving, which was the most conspicuous hole in Sinner’s well-rounded game. He tweaked his delivery last season, widening his base, dipping his racquet a little lower, driving through his lower body.
Back indoors In Rotterdam this week, amid a draw as stacked as you’ll ever see in a 500-level tournament, Sinner was offered a chance to avenge his Australia woes. The matchup on Thursday was Stefanos Tsitsipas, playing his first tennis since his final in Melbourne, and Sinner burned him in 81 minutes, 6–4, 6–3. It was Sinner’s cleanest execution of the year, 20 winners to six unforced errors, and his serve held up well, netting 84 percent of points. In particular the increased pop on Sinner’s first serve leapt out: Both players averaged 123 mph, proving that he can match Tsitsipas’ world-class stuff on a good day.
Not the steadiest performance from the baseline for Stef, who shanked it up in characteristic style—fans of Federer will see a sad ghost in this one-hander—but a nourishing win for Sinner nonetheless. “Head-to-head I am still far back to him,” he said after. “For me this is a very important win.” Aside from stopping his four-match skid against Tsitsipas, this was also Sinner’s first-ever triumph over a top-three opponent. His peers are in recession: Carlos Alcaraz is playing through the rust in Buenos Aires, his first tournament of the year after a leg injury; Holger Rune retired from his own match in Rotterdam with wrist issues. Forza, Jannik! This is your time.
Above: Sinner is a winner in Rotterdam, against Stefanos Tsitsipas last night. (Alamy)