Beyond The Numbers

Sinner's 'go big, go early' strategy

Italian takes 12-0 season record into the year's first ATP Masters 1000
March 04, 2024
Jannik Sinner is No. 3 in the PIF ATP Rankings.
Peter Staples for ATP Tour
Jannik Sinner is No. 3 in the PIF ATP Rankings. By Craig O'Shannessy

The holy grail of tennis is not consistency.

Instead, it is 'first strike'. The first two times you touch the ball in a point are more important than everything that follows.

An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of Jannik Sinner’s triumphant 2024 Australian Open campaign identifies the 22-year-old Italian forged his advantage much more in shorter rallies than longer ones. As he looks to extend his perfect 12-0 season at the year's first ATP Masters 1000 at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells this week and next, Sinner is likely to stick to his aggressive approach in pursuit of this third consecutive title. 

This hidden truth of 'first-strike' tennis played out in greater detail in Sinner’s dazzling Australian Open semi-final victory against the No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings, Novak Djokovic, and against World No. 3 Daniil Medvedev in the final.

Sinner is the latest iteration of what it takes to win at the pinnacle of our sport: Dominate the more abundant short rallies, weather the storm in the longer ones, take home the silverware.

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Three Rally Lengths
The length of the rally can be divided into three distinct segments.

0-4 Shots (First Strike)
5-8 Shots (Patterns Of Play)
9+ Shots (Extended Rallies)

The first thing to examine is volume. Which rally length did Sinner play the most?

Sinner Total Points Played In Seven Matches
0-4 Shots = 59%
5-8 Shots = 24%
9+ Shots = 17%

Sinner played considerably more points in the 0-4 shot rally length (59%) than the other two longer rally lengths combined (41%). Sinner’s 0-4 percentage played was not as high as the tournament average of 66%, but it very much represented the lion's share of his points.

Sinner Total Points Played vs. Djokovic & Medvedev
0-4 Shots = 56%
5-8 Shots = 26%
9+ Shots = 18%

You would expect Djokovic and Medvedev to strategically extend rallies against Sinner, to wear him down in prolonged baseline exchanges and avoid his strong suit in shorter rallies. It didn’t materialise, as 9+ shot rallies only rose one percentage point (17% to 18%) against the duo.

But rally length totals only tell part of the story. The winning performance (points won vs. lost) at each rally length highlighted the Italian's specific areas of expertise and his desire to force opponents to miss early in the point, rather than be patient and wait for them to miss later.

Sinner Points Won/Lost In Seven Matches
0-4 Shots: 467 won/355 lost = +112 (57% won)
5-8 Shots: 180 won/151 lost = +29 (54% won)
9+ Shots: 123 won/116 lost = +7 (51% won)


Sinner significantly outperformed his rivals in the 'first strike' rally length, winning a sizeable 112 more points (467 won/355 lost) than he lost. He also won a higher percentage (57%) of these rallies than in the 5-8 shots and 9+ shots segments. To the eyeball test, Sinner looked like he dominated in long rallies just as much as shorter ones during the Aussie Open fortnight, but he actually only won seven more points than he lost (123 won/116 lost) in 9+ shot rallies through seven matches.

Our eyes deceive us. A spreadsheet doesn’t.

You May Also Like: How Sinner flipped the Australian Open final against Medvedev

Sinner Points Won/Lost vs. Djokovic & Medvedev
0-4 Shots:162 won/124 lost = +38 (57% won)
5-8 Shots: 63 won/69 lost = -6 (48% won)
9+ Shots: 45 won/ 46 lost = -1 (49% won)

When the point was extended to five shots or longer, Djokovic and Medvedev took the honours against Sinner, winning seven more points (115 to 108). It was the Italian who dominated the 'first strike' rally length, crafting a tournament-winning 38-shot advantage (162 to 124). Once again, the highest percentage of points won for Sinner was in the 0-4 shot rally length, at 57%.

It’s important to recognise that Sinner and his opponents only hit the ball in the court a maximum of two shots each in the abundant 0-4 shot rally length. Tennis feels like a sport where dominance in longer rallies is more important than shorter rallies. It’s not. Short rallies simply represent the biggest piece of the pie.

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