Jannik Sinner Soars with Courage at the Australian Open

Jannik Sinner was once a skiing prodigy. He grew up in a small town in the Italian Alps, near Austria, and was one of the country’s top prospects in the giant slalom, an event that requires speed, quick feet, and technical mastery. But he was afraid. Skiing is unforgiving: one small mistake, and you lose the race, or worse. So, when he was around thirteen, Sinner turned more seriously to tennis. He has been asked many times what skills skiing gave him, and he answers modestly: a sense of balance, a feel for sliding on the court. But sometimes he is more direct. “When I was a skier, I was always aware that I could hurt myself badly,” he told Interview, last May. “In tennis you can break an ankle, but you can’t die.”

I thought of that as I watched Sinner hoist the trophy after beating Daniil Medvedev, 3–6, 3–6, 6–4, 6–4, 6–3, in an astounding—and yet unsurprising—comeback at the Australian Open final on Sunday. Fear often decides a tennis match, or more precisely nerves. Perhaps more so in this sport than any other, you can see a physiological response to pressure: it tightens the body, rewires the mind. Sinner came onto the court against Medvedev and played nervy tennis to start, hesitant where he would normally be quick. He’d gone down two sets in barely an hour, typically an insurmountable lead. But what was there to fear, really?

In 2020, aged nineteen, he played Rafael Nadal in the French Open quarterfinals. There was no shame in loss. He announced himself in the sound of his shot, as pure a crack as there is in the sport. His timing on the ball—a function of his vision, his footwork, and his ability to bring his hands behind the ball—was immaculate. His long legs moved with a glider’s grace, and his long arm had the looseness of a whip. As with most players, his forehand was the wing on which he piled up winners, but his two-handed backhand was a revelation—his quick hands let him bring his backswing so far behind him that, when he uncurled to meet the ball, he hit it with the heavy speed and topspin of a forehand. It was easy to guess that, along with Carlos Alcaraz, he represented the future of tennis—they both had an attacking mentality, combined with a shocking ability to cover the court at long distances and extreme angles—completely erasing the typical distinction between offense and defense. They stretched the usual dimensions of the court. “Courage” was the word that people used to describe them then, not only for the way they took risks but also for the brave way they struck the ball. Their match at the 2022 U.S. Open was—Big Three, forgive me—one of the finest tennis matches I’ve ever seen.

But Sinner lost that match, and as Alcaraz ascended to the top ranking Sinner slipped. His serve was relatively harmless, and became a weakness. He seemed to lack versatility, unlike Alcaraz, who constantly innovated with his feel and touch. Sinner’s smoothness started to seem like sameness. And there was, if not fear, then nerves. He made the semifinals at Wimbledon, but lost to Novak Djokovic, meekly, after running up a two-set lead. His ranking fell out of the Top Ten, down to No. 15. During a changeover in China, after the U.S. Open, he puked in a bucket, hitting a new low, seemingly. But he won that match, then beat Alcaraz in the semifinal, then won the title. It was the start of a remarkable run, during which he played Djokovic three times in two weeks and beat him twice.

There had been signs that this could come. Most notable, he’d overhauled his service motion, shifting from a platform stance to sliding his feet together, what is known in tennis as a pinpoint stance, sacrificing stability for the ability to reach higher and rotate faster—basic physics for a faster serve. He’d become more aggressive about coming into the net and using his spin to play with a bit more margin. And he was gaining in confidence. Beating Djokovic will do that to you.

But it is another thing entirely to do that at the Australian Open, which Djokovic has won ten times, and where Djokovic was 20–0 in semifinals and finals. But, in this year’s semifinal, Sinner dominated Djokovic, as he had everyone else. Sinner came into the final having dropped only a set. His opponent, Medvedev, had spent nearly six hours more than him on the court. Three of Medvedev’s six matches so far had gone into the fifth set. In two of them, he’d had to come back from two sets down. Sinner had every reason to feel like the favorite, except he was playing in his first major final and Medvedev was in his sixth. So far in the tournament, Sinner had been dominating short points, while Medvedev had had the clear edge only in very long rallies—nine shots or more—which are quite rare and much harder on legs that are already gone.

Medvedev seems to revel in the suffering: extending points, games, sets, matches; hitting off-balance shots. Even his normal ground strokes can look like mishits, wobbling his racquet as the ball blazes back flat and low. The surprise of the match was how aggressively Medvedev played at the start. In the first set, he made nineteen of his twenty-two first serves, played unusually close to the baseline, and ended points quickly with winners. But Sinner had the fresher legs and knew it. Sometimes what we call courage is simply a measure of high stakes. Sometimes it is something else, a sense of joy that comes with making a hard choice. That was Sinner on Sunday: waiting out Medvedev’s unplayable hot streak, then taking control. He won the next two sets, tiring Medvedev with long baseline rallies. Then it was Medvedev—who’d already lost one Australian Open from two sets up, against Nadal—who looked haunted, or at least very tired. Sinner consistently baited Medvedev by pulling him into midcourt, only to push him back. Medvedev, a counterpuncher at heart, complied by retreating. Sinner won the match, finally, with an emphatic forehand down the line. That was the promise of tennis right there—the chance to make mistakes and to learn from playing, to find some freedom in the feeling of running and hitting a ball. What are the stakes, after all? Following the match, even Medvedev had some perspective. “It always hurts to lose in the final,” he said, “but probably to lose in the final is better than losing before.” ♦

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