Flying With The Fox: Sinner, My Entourage
From teen prodigy to established Top 10 star, Jannik Sinner has become one of the most exciting young players on the ATP Tour.
Yet the story of the 22-year-old’s success is far from a one-man show, and for the 2023 season he has been accompanied at tournaments by any of four regular team members – coaches Simone Vagnozzi and Darren Cahill, physio Giacomo Naldi and fitness coach Umberto Ferrara.
The ATP Tour caught up with Team Sinner to find out more about the inner workings of the eight-time tour-level champion’s quest to reach the very top of the game.
“I would describe my team as nice people, happy people,” Sinner told the ATP Tour earlier this year. “Everyone knows very well what he has to do. I feel good with them and lucky to have them, so I think it is a very good team.”
Different coaches bring different ideas to the table. Sinner believes his open-mindedness to learn from the combined experience of Vagnozzi and Cahill, as well as physical specialists Naldi and Ferrara, is key to his continued development.
“Everyone is very important for me because for me it's sometimes also good to mix it up a little bit,” said Sinner. “You don't go to every tournament with the same people, but to have different voices sometimes, it's very good. I think everyone is very important for me, because also with two different tennis coaches sometimes to have new things coming, you learn new things.”
It isn’t just on the court where Sinner feels the benefit of his entourage, which also helps him stay relaxed amid the hectic ATP Tour schedule. He enjoys playing cards, watching football and basketball or going go-karting with his team, and also cites his entourage as key pillars of mental and emotional support.
“When I ask someone to join my team it's not only if they are the best in their work but also how I feel with them,” said Sinner. “For me that is very important because we spend not only the time when we work together, but also at dinner and in the morning.
“I see more of them than my family, so you have to feel very comfortable. They also have to understand my problems, as I sometimes have to understand their problems even if they are a little bit older than I am. It is just important to talk about everything very openly.”
Simone Vagnozzi: CoachDescribed by his fellow coach Cahill as “the one that’s really steering the ship”, Vagnozzi has worked with Sinner since February 2022. The Italian has been aware of his countryman Sinner’s potential for considerably longer, however, and believes the 22-year-old has the work ethic to match his prodigious talent.
“I’ve known Jannik from when he was 14. He played against one of my junior players, so I saw him for the first time there,” Vagnozzi told the ATP Tour. “We met a lot of times at tournaments when I coached [Marco] Cecchinato and [Stefano] Travaglia.
“It's really nice to coach him because he's a really funny guy. He has a really good character. It's easy to coach Jannik also because he wants to improve a lot and go on the court always with a smile and everything, so for a coach it’s really good.”
Vagnozzi takes the lead on the day-to-day coaching of Sinner after the Italian has been physically prepared and warmed up by Naldi and Ferrara. Vagnozzi works in tandem with Cahill, who possesses vast experience coaching top players (including former ATP World No. 1s Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt) and particularly focusses on helping their charge with the mental side of the game.
“Normally we are two coaches on the team, me and Darren Cahill,” explained Vagnozzi. “Sometimes we are together, sometimes we are alone with Jannik. Normally I do the technical stuff on the court. [Giacomo and Umberto] do the physical stuff before, then we go to the court and play for one hour and a half, normally with another player. We play some points, do some drills, and in the afternoon, we do one hour of technique. Serve, volley, slice. Normally this is the routine.”
Vagnozzi relishes working with a coach as highly regarded as Cahill and believes that the wider team assembled by Sinner is a good foundation to help him push on to greater things.
“The relationship is really good. Darren is a really nice person and also has an unbelievable [work record],” said Vagnozzi. “Umberto the fitness coach I’ve known for many years because we worked together with Cecchinato and Travaglia. The physio Giacomo is new, but he is a really nice guy, young. Right now, everything is working well.”
Vagnozzi is certainly in no doubt of Sinner’s desire to rise to the top of the game. He named Sinner as the most competitive member of the team, even when it comes to card games or fun challenges that he and Cahill set on the practice court.
“Jannik wants to win everything,” said Vagnozzi. “Just yesterday we lost 20 bucks each, Darren and I, because he hit the ball can with his serve on the first try. If we say to him, ‘You get 20 Euros if you do it the first time and 15 Euros if you do it on the second’, [he always] does it on the first!”
Darren Cahill: CoachOne of the most respected coaches in the game, Cahill is clear as to why he decided to join Team Sinner.
“I think that there are a lot of young players at the moment on the men's Tour that are exciting to watch and certainly exciting to work with,” said Cahill. “Jannik is one of those players… He works incredibly hard, he has great discipline. He's a good kid off the court, his family's awesome and he's been well brought up, he's got his feet firmly planted on the ground, he's respectful, and he believes.
“He believes that one day the ultimate success will come to him and he knows that you don't get there without a lot of hard work. He's prepared to do the hard work.”
With Vagnozzi already in place as a full-time coach, Sinner brought Cahill on board in June 2022 with the belief that the Australian could add to his development.
“My role is more about the experience and how to help him mentally in these big moments, and to make sure that we're working on the right stuff that eventually is going to get him to the place we want to be,” explained Cahill. “To help Umberto and Giacomo [as well] and work out when we need to practise for an extra 45 minutes, or when it's good to send him back to the hotel to rest.
“It’s just the little things that make a big difference in a player's career, and that's kind of my role, more of an overseer of the team. So far, it's been really enjoyable, and I love it.”
Like Vagnozzi, Sinner’s desire to win is something that impresses Cahill, even if the Italian occasionally leaves him with lighter pockets when things get competitive off the court.
“We have lots of laughs,” said Cahill. “We play lots of games against each other. Jannik is incredibly competitive, whether we're playing cards or on the go-karts, or doing anything outside of tennis, he wants to win, and win badly. I think at times he's more concerned with taking five Euros off me than he is about winning a $20,000 paycheque. He cares more about five Euros, winning it off me, and takes great satisfaction when he sees me taking it out of the wallet to give it to him as well.
“He's a funny guy, a very funny kid. He makes it relaxing to be around. So far it's been a pleasure to work with him. Hopefully he says the same about me, but it's been great fun.”
Giacomo Naldi: PhysioSinner is known for his electric movement along the baseline, something that he has previously attributed in part to the fact he was one of Italy’s top young skiers before he prioritised tennis. The man responsible for keeping Sinner’s body ready to race around the court is his physiotherapist, Naldi, the newest addition to the team.
“I've been working with Jannik since February,” said Naldi. “I'm from Bologna. I met Jannik in October of last year. They came to my clinic because he injured his ankle. We worked together for one week and then at the end of the year, they asked me if I wanted to join the team because their physio changed jobs. I decided to join them and I'm very happy to be with them.”
Naldi works closely with fitness coach Ferrara to ensure Sinner is ready to produce his best on court. His job is particularly important for the Italian star’s recovery, a crucial aspect to professional tennis given the tournaments and matches often come thick and fast.
“Our daily routine is composed of a pre-training section, which means some mobility, some preventive exercises,” said Naldi. “Me and [Umberto] in particular. My job is to work on his feet doing taping and his knee, some nice mobility and something for his body before he trains with the trainer and before the practice.
“The main part of my job is after a match or practice because I work with his muscles. So I do a massage, mobility [exercises] again, and also some osteopathic techniques, because I am also an osteopath and I try to do whatever he needs to recover his body.”
It was also Naldi who introduced the group to one its favourite off-court activities — the card game Buraco — a development that roused Sinner’s superstitious side.
“Since February when they learned to play, Jannik wants to play every day,” said Naldi. “The first time we played he won the tournament [in Montpellier], so now he wants to play every day.”
Umberto Ferrara: Fitness CoachSince June 2022 it has been Ferrara, the fitness coach, who is responsible for helping Sinner reach his peak physical state for competition. Despite being a player who is known for his speed around court, Ferrara believes there is more to come from the Italian as he looks to make his mark at the top of the game.
“He is a very good athlete,” said Ferrara. “He has improved in the last year, and I think he must improve a lot in the two or three next years. But actually, he is a good athlete.”
Like Naldi, Ferrara has a standard routine to his day working with Sinner, but has to remain flexible depending on how the Italian’s body handles his on-court exertions.
“We start in the morning with the exercise for mobility,” explains Ferrara. “Then we have a lot of exercises to ‘prehab’ for the injury that Jannik has had in the past on the ankles. Then we follow the routine about strength and speed, to move better. That's it, but every day we change a little bit because it's dependent on the state or shape of Jannik.”
Ferrara’s hard work played a role in enabling Sinner to become an ATP Masters 1000 champion for the first time in August in Toronto. That moment stands out for the fitness coach as a highlight of his time on Team Sinner. Ferrara also cherishes the importance of the team’s efforts in helping the Italian overcome tougher moments in his career.
“The best memory is the win in Toronto for sure, but I also like the times when we finish the rehab after an injury and we restart playing playing and practising,” said Ferrara. “For me these are very good moments.”
Photo Credits: ATP Tour