Tennis: Sinner prepares for his first major final, faces Medvedev in Australia

AP , Saturday 27 Jan 2024

One thing people have noticed about Jannik Sinner is how unflappable he’s been on his run to the Australian Open final. And the big smile.

Sinner
Italy s Jannik Sinner greets Serbia s Novak Djokovic (R) after victory in their men s singles semi-final match on day 13 of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. Photo: AFP

In the semifinals against 10-time title-winner Novak Djokovic, who had never lost a match after reaching the last four in Australia, Sinner won the first two sets quickly, absorbed the 24-time major champion’s comeback and then won it in four.

He didn’t face a break point. He didn’t get ruffled by a noisy Rod Laver Arena crowd, or overawed by the occasion. Or what was on the line: a first major final.

That’s unlikely to change when he takes on 2021 U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, a two-time runner-up at Melbourne Park, in the championship match on Sunday.

Sinner missed a match point in the tiebreaker against Djokovic — the only set he lost in six rounds — and 55 minutes later, with the umpire having to call for quiet for the third time in one game, Sinner served for another.

He hit a forehand winner to finish it off, and as the chair umpire announced “Game, Set and Match: Sinner,” the 22-year-old Italian quietly held his arms up and only then began to grin.

Sinner couldn’t contain a bigger smile, his eyes lighting up, but he walked calmly to the net to greet Djokovic in a way that seemed like he didn’t want to rub it in.

No histrionics. Just pleased to advance. Asked later if it was difficult to keep his celebrations in check, Sinner said he certainly was feeling “these kind of emotions you cannot control.”

“You celebrate because this is the emotion what you are feeling now,” he explained. “Obviously it means so much to me to beat Novak here in Melbourne, but in the other way, I know that the tournament is not over.

“Sunday is a final. It’s different emotions. In my mind today I knew it was semifinal. It’s not that you win the tournament like this. So I’m looking forward for Sunday, and let’s see what’s coming.”

Medvedev became the first man since Pete Sampras in 1995 to reach the Australian Open final with two comebacks from two sets down, having been two points from defeat before beating Alexander Zverev 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3.

That earned him a spot in a sixth major final.

Sinner, in his 17th Grand Slam tournament, is the first Italian to reach an Australian Open singles final. His run has been compared by some with Roger Federer’s first title. The Swiss great hadn’t reached the semifinals in his first 16 majors, then he won Wimbledon.

Sinner may not have been a globally recognized player when he lost in the Wimbledon semifinals last year to Djokovic, but his two subsequent wins over the world No. 1 in November at the ATP Finals in Turin and in the Davis Cup semifinals certainly raised his profile.

It also helped that he had the Carota Boys behind him after the Italian Open in May. What began as a spur-of-the-moment idea among six of his supporters to dress up as carrots has turned into a traveling fan club, featuring at all four Slams now since a trip to Australia this month.

The carrot idea is partly a tribute to Sinner’s red-orange hair and how he ate carrots instead of the more common bananas during a changeover at a tournament in 2019.

Sinner’s game has evolved since an overhaul of his coaching in 2022, when he reached quarterfinals in Australia, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Darren Cahill, the Australian who helped Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Simona Halep regain or reach the top ranking, spotted Sinner’s talent while doing TV commentary a few years ago, and noted he could be a potential world No. 1.

The sound of the ball when Sinner hit it, because of his timing and hand speed, was the giveaway, Cahill said, and it reminded him of the unique sounds of the likes of Agassi, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

Cahill had joined to offer a big-picture perspective and says “99% of the credit for the coaching” goes to Simone Vagnozzi. There’s also been a lot more focus on fitness and nutrition with Umberto Ferrara and Giacomo Naldi.

“There was certainly from a tennis perspective areas of Jannik’s game — he was already a great player, you can’t be top 10 without having the platform of some incredible weapons, and he had those,” Cahill said. But “I think the natural progression that Jannik needed to make everybody could see.”

Vagnozzi said Sinner’s game at the time was high level, but slightly predictable.

“One style. Was just pushing hard and without so many tactics,” Vagnozzi said. “So now he can play with his speed but knowing where to put the ball, when to play drop shot, when to play slice.”

Cahill said Sinner possesses the qualities that the other major winners he’s worked with have had, and something else important.

“Work ethic, purpose, desire, willingness to learn, tennis IQ of all those champions is fantastic,” he said. “Jannik has all that.”

And, a sense of humor, Cahill added. “He’s a good guy, and he’s a fun-loving guy.

“He’s got the qualities I believe that a lot of the great champions in the game have, but you’ve got to start winning to let that come to fruition.”

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