Sinner's Secret Weapon: His Mind
Jannik Sinner’s talent is unquestionable. Many players, analysts and fans alike feel it’s a matter of when, not if, the Italian will ascend to the top of the sport. But it’s not just the teenager’s natural ability that will take him there. It’s his mind.
That’s not necessarily something you’d expect from a 19-year-old, who was not born until six months after Roger Federer won his first ATP Tour title. But the #NextGenATP star speaks more like a mental coach than a rising star who is learning the ropes.
“I think every day you have lessons, [whether] you do something good [or] if you do something bad,” Sinner told ATPTour.com. “If you’re smart, you can take something new every day.”
Many young players take time to acclimate to life as a professional tennis player. Yet Sinner won the 2019 Next Gen ATP Finals — the 21-and-under season finale — at the age of 18. He was not wrapped up in the moment or the hype, though. Instead of looking around him and getting absorbed by his newfound stardom, Sinner’s sole concern was improving for the long term.
That is a big reason why there was no sophomore slump for the Italian during the 2020 season, which was shortened due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Sinner climbed from No. 78 to No. 37 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. Nobody else who finished inside the year-end Top 50 ascended as many spots as the teen.
Sinner didn’t snap his fingers and suddenly soar upwards, either. The San Candido native focussed on giving his best on a daily basis, and that paid off.
“[In] tennis, you wake up and you never know how you are going to feel on court. That’s the funny part. For sure, I improved physically, mentally and all the rest,” Sinner said. “But sometimes you wake up, you don’t feel well on court and maybe you have to accept that your opponent is playing better than you…. If we talk about improving, I think physically, I am okay. The shots are getting stronger as well. Maybe the unforced errors I have to improve a little bit to make them less.
“[But] for me the funny part of tennis is you wake up and maybe you play incredibly and you can win against everybody. Sometimes you play badly and you lose matches you normally should win.”
That doesn’t bother Sinner. The way the Italian approaches matches is that irrespective of whether he wins or loses, he always learns. That’s a commendable mindset for a player who competed professionally for the first time less than three years ago. This might surprise you, but Sinner was out by the second round in 15 of his 18 tournaments in 2018.
“I always put myself in difficult conditions. When I was young I tried to play Futures, [and I] lost many, many first-round matches. Obviously the other [players] were much better than me. But I stayed there, I trained with them trying to get better and every day I improved something,” Sinner said. “Even if it was tough, you travel around the world. I’ve been in Monastir, Sharm El Sheikh, all these [places] where every player wants to win. You are there and maybe playing a little bit worse than everyone else, and you have to find a way to win.”
"For me, it’s really important to educate the player more than coaching him. With all my players I’ve always tried to deal with their existing talent. These players are all very good. What we need to do, or at least what I like to do, is to give them order, to bring out what is already in them,” Piatti said. "Jannik was very young when he came to me and he still had to learn a lot from every point of view. But the more they improve, the more they need someone who’s there to educate them [in] this game.”
Sinner reached the quarter-finals at Roland Garros last year, becoming the youngest player to advance that far on the Parisian clay since 19-year-old Novak Djokovic did so in 2006. At that tournament, where Sinner beat established stars David Goffin and Alexander Zverev, perhaps the Italian’s most impressive match was the one he lost. Thirteen-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal beat Sinner in straight sets in the last eight, but the teen went blow-for-blow with the legendary Spaniard in the first two sets.
“The day when I played against Rafa, you can see many things in one match [that I need to improve],” Sinner said. “I think that’s the biggest lesson. Every day you can learn something.”
One month later, Sinner won his first ATP Tour title at the Sofia Open.
“It means a lot [to win]. When you work day after day, you go to sleep when you are completely done, when you are very tired. You work for winning,” Sinner said. “You always have to trust the process. There are difficult times and there are good times and when you play finals, it’s good. That’s what you’re working for.”
That is why Sinner, the youngest player in the Top 100, is not going to think about his success, despite being at a career-high World No. 36.
“It’s great progress,” Sinner said of how far he has come. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”