Pic: Twitter (@atptour)

Sinner: Bring back the teenage glory

Jannik Sinner is the latest revelation in the tennis world. The 19-year-old Italian has shown immense potential in his short career so far and has a great chance to try and end the rule of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

For around 15 years now, men’s tennis has been absolutely dominated by three particular individuals. Referred to as the ‘Big Three’, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been making sure that no other players trudge onto their territory, that is, the Grand Slams. For almost 18 years, from the 2003 Wimbledon, which Federer won, to the recently concluded 2021 Australian Open, there have been 70 Grand Slams, and this dominant trio have won 58 of them. With Federer and Nadal having pocketed 20 Slams each and Djokovic 18, they have established an unerasable legacy of their own, both as individuals as well as a prepotent triumvirate.

Throughout this phase of ascendancy, the only player who has somewhat been able to shake off the dominance is Andy Murray, who won three Grand Slams and reached the final of six others from 2010 to 2016. Swiss Stan Wawrinka has also enjoyed a little success, winning the same amount of Slams as Murray. Others who have managed to feel the metal of a Grand Slam trophy through this phase are Andy Roddick, Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin, Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem, each of whom won no more than one Slam after the 2003 Wimbledon.

Every other player, young or aged, experienced or inexperienced, has not been able to break the curse of these three behemoths, who seem to stroll through to at least the quarter finals without the slightest of issues four times a year, every year. The only way one of them gets knocked out is if they have to face each other at some point of the tournament, which the younger generation craves for. But in sport, it’s only a matter of time before age comes knocking at your door, and it seems as though Roger Federer’s door has heard that knock.

At 39, Federer has already defied logic by sticking around, but he has been hampered by injuries of late and, having won his last Slam in early 2018, breaking through Nadal, Djokovic and the new generation all over again might be a task too steep to climb for the Swiss genius. However, the stalwart hasn’t hung his shoes up yet, and as long as the iconic single-handed backhand is able to send rockets up the other end, Federer will very much remain in the thick of things. But what Federer’s gradual descent has done is that it has given Nadal and Djokovic more scope to win. The Spanish and Serbian maestros have been showing no mercy to the other players, and it’s all a matter of how far one gets before losing to either one of them. Dominic Thiem, 27, only won the 2020 US Open because Federer and Nadal did not take part, and Djokovic was disqualified after a little tempestuous mishap.

Thiem, along with Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nick Kyrgios and Dennis Shapovalov are the main faces of the new generation players who will take tennis forward, and only Thiem has won a Grand Slam title among them. One other name that has very surreptitiously been climbing up the ranks is that of Jannik Sinner. The 19-year-old Italian prodigy turned pro only three years ago, and has quickly made it up to number 23 in the men’s ATP rankings. At the 2020 French Open, Sinner raised a few eyebrows when he reached the quarter finals, becoming the youngest to do so since Novak Djokovic in 2006. In the recent Miami Open, Sinner conquered some of world tennis’s prominent names, Karen Khachanov and Roberto Bautista Agut en route to the final of the tournament, where he ultimately lost to Hubert Hurkacz.

Though still relatively new to the professional circuit, Sinner has made his presence felt, but deep down, there will surely be one inevitable fear engulfing him. Novak Djokovic is at the top of his game and going strong, and apart from his shock loss to Tsitsipas in the 2021 Australian Open quarter final, Rafael Nadal still seems pretty lethal too. It is no secret that defeating Nadal at the French Open is a fantasy. The Spanish superstar has made the tournament his own, and has won the trophy an astounding 13 times. Djokovic on the other hand is equally undefeatable at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, having won the trophies nine and five times respectively.

The Big Three has prevented the younger generation from achieving what they had the chance to achieve, success at an early age. Though the present young crop makes the quarters and semis of Slams regularly, they never seem to be able to fully scale the mountain. This though, was not the case 15 years ago. Players winning their first majors while in the age range of 17–23 was not a new sight, but such occurrences have ceased to transpire nowadays. Nadal won his first Slam, the French Open of course, in 2005 at the age of just 19. Djokovic won his first Slam, the Australian Open in 2008, aged 20, and Federer’s maiden triumph came at 21. Michael Chang, Boris Becker and Mats Wilander won their first Grand Slams aged only 17, while Bjorn Borg was 18.

Such child prodigies, though plenty in number even today, have not been able to replicate this tradition of tasting success early on. Sinner can still mark his territory while on the younger side. Already in the top 25, he has a realistic chance of breaking into the top 10 in the next year and a half if he keeps playing with the same passion and vigour that he is now. Maybe he can be the one to break the stereotype that the Big Three are almost undefeatable, and with the way he’s going about business, he most certainly can inflict damage upon any player. The mental stranglehold that these three giants have over their younger opponents, coupled with their impeccable and precise gameplay, make it a daunting task to defeat them. It is as though a player has already made it clear to himself that winning against Djokovic or Nadal is against regulations, and it is this mental block that the veterans exploit to their advantage.

After losing only the first set, the drooping of shoulders and bowing of heads starts coming naturally to these prodigies. If they win the first set, there is hardly a celebration, because they have already made it a point that they cannot win against Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. Much higher on stamina, it’s technicality that these players lack. Trying to do too much never helps, something Djokovic has believed in for a long time. No tweeners, no underarm serves, no unnecessary histrionics. Djokovic treats the game like it should be, wherever the ball goes, he goes. With legs stretched as wide apart as an outstretched rubber band, he intercepts the trajectory of the ball, and then does not try to blast it away over the net, he chooses his spot and elegantly places the ball to perfection, leaving the opponent helpless and clueless. Nick Kyrgios is a typical example of someone who does too much. Widely regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, Kyrgios has the ability to easily knock off any player whatsoever, as he has done on days when he was in his element.

But his extravagant style and volatile temper throw him off path. Though the giants have been overwhelmed time and again, the majority of the matches see a similar, and older name come out on top. With the rapid rise of Jannik Sinner, who’s silky double-handed backhand is a sight to behold, the tennis world is anticipating a breach of the Big Three barrier. After countless failed attempts over the past six to eight years, Sinner has a golden opportunity to continue his stunning run and show the others how it’s done. With Djokovic at 33 and Nadal at 34, and Federer still hanging around too, there might still be a long way to go before either of them decides to call it quits. Jannik Sinner has age on his side, and with the right mindset and counselling from the right people, he has a grand chance to restore the supremacy of tennis in Italy. Fabio Fognini and Matteo Berrettini have since long been lone Italian warriors with tennis racquets in their hands, now it’s time for Jannik Sinner to join them. This young talent is here to stay, and with an array of shots on display, slowly he will make everyone’s heads turn his way.

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Divyaj Tomar

Divyaj Tomar

High school student in Bangalore. Cricket, tennis, films fan. Can’t help notice typos. Interested in areas of sustainable progress and rural sports development.