They are in a hurry, this younger cohort of tennis stars, with no interest in waiting their turn to take over their sport, or respecting their elders.
On a warm Sunday evening in Rod Laver Arena, Jannik Sinner, the 22-year-old fast-rising star from Italy, became the latest member of the ‘next generation’ to win a Grand Slam title.
He recovered from two sets down to beat Daniil Medvedev 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 and win the Australian Open title in his maiden tilt in one of the game’s ultimate showdowns. In doing so, he became only the second player younger than 23 in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam final from two sets down, after Bjorn Borg (Roland-Garros, 1974). He is only the eighth to do it at all.
“It’s the happy Slam,” Sinner said, using the nickname Roger Federer gave to the Australian Open as he held the big silver trophy. His thoughts then turned to the cook and the restaurant worker in the mountainous area of north east Italy who raised him — the ones who, he said, gave him the chance to choose his sport and to follow his dream. “Where my parents are, it’s -20 degrees in the morning!”
Better, he said, to be running around tennis courts during the Australian summer — and becoming the youngest man to win the Australian Open since Djokovic in 2008.
Coming into the final, Medvedev did not have a lot to pin his hopes on against Sinner, who has long been touted for greatness and whose speed and power appeared to be coming together at just the right time. Medvedev had lost his past three matches against Sinner. He’d spent some 20 hours on the court, including two five-set marathons, one of which ended at 3:40 in the morning during the first week. Sinner had blazed through his draw, including a stunning beatdown of the 10-time champion Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.
But Medvedev walked onto the court with one glaring advantage: he had been on this stage before. This was his third Australian Open final and his sixth time playing for a Grand Slam title. It was Sinner’s first and, for the first two sets, he played like it — tight in his body language, hesitant in his movement, tentative in his shotmaking, a shadow of the player he’d been during the previous two weeks.
Scrambling to stay in the match in the third set, Sinner took advantage of a tiring Medvedev to cut his deficit as Rod Laver Arena came alive for the first time all night — the screaming Italians in the crowd finally had something to scream about. Suddenly Medvedev looked like he was having visions of the 2022 final when he coughed up a two-set lead to that irresistible tennis force, a surging Rafael Nadal.
The Sinner surge on Sunday night was something else.
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First, he stopped making errors on basic shots, especially on his backhand, which Medvedev started testing in the first game and never stopped. Then he began fighting his way into points on Medvedev’s serve, forcing Medvedev to dip further into his energy reserves, which were low to start with after two weeks of marathon matches.
And then, with the score even for the first time in nearly three hours, Sinner finally began firing the lasers from the baseline that had taken down his six previous opponents, including arguably the greatest of all time.
The decisive break came in the sixth game of the fifth set, with a pattern that had become all too familiar for Medvedev during the past hour. Sinner jumped on his softening second serve to push him back into the court and, two shots later, laced a cross-court forehand that Medvedev could do nothing with but watch it whizz by.
Three games later, Sinner became the first Italian man to win the Australian Open in the modern era of tennis, finishing it off with one last forehand blast down the line and collapsing on his back as he watched it sear through the back of the court. Medvedev became the first man to lose a two-set lead in a Grand Slam final twice.
“You fought to the end, you managed to raise your level,” Medvedev told Sinner when it was over and he was holding the runner-up trophy for a third time. “It always hurts to lose in the final, but probably to lose in the final is better than losing before. I’m proud of myself and I’m going to try harder next time.”
For most of the past two years, Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish sensation, has dominated the buzz of men’s tennis as he lived up to the hype of being the sport’s next big thing. But as Alcaraz sprinted to the top of the game, becoming in 2022 the youngest man to become the world No 1 since the start of the modern rankings system, Sinner preached the value of patience and process.
His time would come, he promised, but he was different from Alcaraz, someone who needed to improve one step at a time and progress methodically into the deeper ends of tournaments and learn how to play on the biggest stages of the sport. Everyone was in a hurry for him and Alcaraz to square off and get started on a new rivalry in the spirit of Federer-Nadal or Nadal-Djokovic.
Everything in its time, he said. That time may very well have arrived Sunday night, in part because while he was watching the legends of the sport to learn how they practiced and prepared, he was also gaining the belief from Alcaraz that he, too, could knock off the best players, even though he was young.
Very little in sport happens by accident, least of all the creation of a Grand Slam champion. Tennis is an individual sport, but countries sometimes produce waves of top players. A dozen years ago, Spain was tennis royalty, winning the Davis Cup, the sport’s leading national competition, four times in eight years, with Nadal leading the way.
Italian tennis was a shambles, without many top players and few in the talent pipeline. Around that time, the country’s tennis federation developed a plan to become a destination for more junior and lower-tier professional tournaments. That allowed players like Sinner, Lorenzo Musetti, Matteo Arnaldi and others the federation supported to gain experience competing at a high level without bearing the cost of international travel.
“Amazing the support I have received,” said Sinner.
Still, there is no sure formula to create a Grand Slam champion, especially someone who makes a different sound when he smacks a tennis ball with his racket, a kind of crack that lets an opponent know the ball is coming at him fast.
There’s a very basic strategy in tennis that anyone who has played or watched the sport even just a handful of times will be familiar with. It basically boils down to standing on the baseline and hitting the ball over and over to an opponent’s backhand until you can prove the backhand is strong enough to withstand the pressure. At that stage, it can start to exact punishment because the player knows what’s coming.
That is Plan A. It often does not work all that well in Grand Slam finals because the best players in the world can handle just about any shot if they know what’s coming, even if their backhands are not that great.
In Medvedev’s case, it worked for a long while, with Sinner unable to handle the stress of the rallies and the moment, but Sinner started to come to life with Medvedev serving for the second set at 5-1. Sinner broke him, then nearly broke him again, at 5-3, and entered the third set believing he had a chance.
With Sinner mounting his comeback, Darren Cahill, one of Sinner’s coaches, stood in his box and yelled: “He’s tired,” and reminded Sinner to have his champion’s mindset.
“Once it gets to a fourth and fifth set, it’s about what’s inside you,” Cahill said.
Medvedev had something left but it was going fast. He was desperate to avoid his fourth five-set match of a tournament when he spent more time on the court than nearly any other in Grand Slam history, in Cahill’s words, going “to hell and back” to get to within two points of serving for the title.
That was as close as he would get. There was another of the game’s young guns demanding he give way.
“You live with this kind of movement,” Sinner said. “You don’t even realize how fast you’re moving.”
(Top photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)