Italy's Sinner, 17, Already Knows His Advantage Over Tsitsipas
Count quick thinking among the many talents of 17-year-old Jannik Sinner, the Italian who energised his home fans by upsetting American Steve Johnson on Sunday at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome.
Barely an hour after his come-from-behind 1-6, 6-1, 7-5 win, the #NextGenATP Italian was already pointing out the strategic advantage he holds over his second-round opponent, World No. 7 and Mutua Madrid Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. But that's not to say he was particularly looking forward to the meeting.
“Yeah, Stefanos next. Ha, ha,” Sinner said before sighing and pausing. “The good thing is that I know him, and he doesn't know me.”
The Italian burst into a giddy laugh, the chuckle you'd expect from a baby-faced teenager having the best day of his life so far.
Two months ago, Sinner, then-No. 546 in the ATP Rankings, was becoming the youngest Italian to win an ATP Challenger Tour title in Bergamo. On Sunday, the teenager with an all-around game was the subject of selfie and autograph requests from everyone within reach in Rome.
“For Italians here, it's pretty important. It's the biggest tournament in Italy. So it's never easy to play with such a big crowd,” Sinner said. “I'm very happy... They pushed me a lot in difficult situations, and I'm very proud of them, and let's see how the tournament will go.”
Sinner broke Johnson as he attempted to serve out the match at 5-4 in the third to bring Campo Centrale to life on day one of Italy's ATP Masters 1000 event.
The Italian, now No. 263, had watched videos of Johnson's matches before and had decided to attack the American's weaker backhand side to open up his forehand wing. The tactic carried him in the second and third sets.
“I think I tried to do it even in the first set, sometimes maybe I rushed a little bit too much. But anyways I'm very proud that I could get the situation under control,” he said.
These are high times for Italian tennis, thanks to Sinner and a few of his countrymen. Fabio Fognini, 31, became the first Italian since Nicola Pietrangeli in 1968 to win the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, and the Sanremo native is one place away from cracking the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings, a feat that hasn't been accomplished by an Italian since Corrado Barazzutti on 22 January 1979.
Roman Matteo Berrettini, only 23, won his second ATP Tour title last month at the Hungarian Open and hit a new career-high ATP Ranking of No. 31 last week. Another Italian closer to Sinner's generation, Lorenzo Sonego of Turin, also 23, reached a career-high of No. 66 last month.
Asked if his Italian peers are inspiring him, Sinner said, “Yes, a lot, because I think every Italian wants to play here in Rome, and every Italian wants to be on a very high level. And I think we push each other.”
The competitive feelings extend to his #NextGenATP Canadian peers – Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov – as well. “They are doing a great job, especially Felix this year... I'm very happy that I can be with them here in Rome, even in Monte-Carlo, I was practising with them. I've still a lot to learn, but first of all I am proud that I can play with them,” Sinner said.
On top of all that for Italy, in two years, the country will have three of the biggest ATP Tour events on the calendar: the Rome Masters 1000 event and, the final two events to end the season in November, the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan and the ATP Finals in Turin, which moves there from London for a five-year stint, starting in 2021.
But Sinner is focused on his tennis, not the Next Gen ATP Finals just yet, although he's 14th in the ATP Race To Milan, which will determine seven of the eight players who compete at the 21-and-under event.
The teenager grew up in South Tyrol, a duo-language region made up of northeast Italy and southwest Austria, and an area known for its skiing, not its forehands.
Sinner could have easily become an aspiring Olympic skier. He was an Italian competitive skiing champion in 2008 and finished second place in 2012, and had mixed feelings about tennis, quitting at the age of seven, about 2009, but coming back to the sport – and enjoying it once more – one year later.
“At the end I decided tennis,” Sinner said. “Skiing for me was not that long. You can just go for two minutes or something like that. I like playing more, and I decided tennis because I enjoyed it more.”
From skiing – and tennis – he learned how to master pressure, a feeling he looked free of on Sunday. But it's a sensation he might know well should a third set against Tsitsipas arise later this week.
“He plays pretty aggressive,” Sinner said. “I have to try to play my best tennis, which is not easy against him, but I think I can do a great job out there.”
Did You Know?
At this time last year, Sinner was ranked No. 1,480 in the ATP Rankings.