At the start of 2019, the young Italian was ranked just 549, was embarking on only his second year on the pro tour, and still honing his game on the ITF circuit.
By the end of February, he had won his first Challenger title, the first player born in 2001 or later to do so, and by the start of May, he had hoovered up points through more Futures tournaments and a final finish at the Ostrava Challenger. It took him into the top 300, where he is still the youngest player, though he is now ranked considerably higher.
For April brought his first main-tour match-win in Budapest, May saw him win his first Masters match, over Steve Johnson, in Rome, and he won another Challenger title in July. He then qualified for his first Major at the US Open, where it took the former champion, Stan Wawrinka, little short of three hours and four sets, to get through to Round 2.
Little wonder, perhaps, that the European Open in Antwerp this year took the plunge with Sinner and offered him a wild card into its main draw. And he has repaid that belief to reach his first semi-final, beating the top seed and last year’s runner-up, Gael Monfils, in the second round in the process.
It marked the Italian’s first top-20 win, and it was done in easy and swift style, 6-3, 6-2. It also demonstrated just what a calm, mature, and understated character this young player has developed.
He allowed himself a little smile, took a few selfies with some new young fans in the front row—and he looks little more than 16 himself—before talking in English, one of three languages in which he is proficient, for the TV audience:
“I prepared quite normally. I had a little bit more pressure, but Gael didn’t play his best tennis for sure. So I took the opportunity and played a very solid game today.”
That win not only took him into the quarters but also to within a few points of the top 100. If he could take another step in his 2019 progress, he would easily pass the 100 mark. To do so, he had to take on the 53-ranked Frances Tiafoe, only three years older at 21 but with much more experience and considerably more muscle.
In the early goings, it looked as though he would repeat his Monfils performance: Sinner broke in the seventh game, held to love, and served out the first set, 6-4, in little more than half an hour.
But Tiafoe, who reached his first Major quarter-final at the start of the year, was regaining his form after some see-sawing results following the Australian swing. He found a lot more intensity in the second set, and got his reward, the break, and served out the second set, 6-3.
Once again, however, Sinner turned the tables to get the first break in the third set, and fought off last-minute break-back points to seal the win, 6-3, in what is becoming something of a signature style—fast, attacking, no-nonsense, and with accurate and assured strikes off both wings.
This time, he allowed himself a clenched fist to his box before the smile, but was just as cool and matter-of-fact in his post-match interview:
“I just want to say thanks for the wild card! I think I played good once again—I was serving quite good. And I’m happy to be in the semi-final.”
There he will play Wawrinka again—an intriguing showdown indeed, after the Swiss needed two and a quarter hours and three tough sets to get past Gilles Simon.
For now, though, the impressive teenager can celebrate his latest ranking milestone, into the top 100. Though one suspects that the highly-focused Sinner will now be thinking about tomorrow rather than today.
Prior to Sinner’s arrival, Italy boasted eight players in the top 100, two of them still vying for debut appearances at the ATP Finals.
· Matteo Berrettini, age 23, has risen this season to a current No8 in the Race, after a semi run at the US Open and winning two titles from three finals.
· Fabio Fognini, age 32, won his first Masters this year in Monte-Carlo to break into the top 10 for the first time. He is currently No11 in the Race to London.
· Lorenzo Sonego, at 24, won his first title this summer to reach a career-high 46.
· Andreas Seppi, age 35, is a former top-20 player who will return inside the top 70, after beating ATP hopeful Karen Khachanov in three sets to reach the Moscow semis.
· Marco Cecchinato, age 27, reached a career-high 16 this February, after winning his first three titles and reaching the semis of the French Open through the last 18 months. He is currently down at 73.
· The remaining three Italians are No83 Stefano Travaglia, No89 Thomas Fabbiano, No95 Salvatore Caruso
Seppi described the rise of the latest Italian arrival thus: “He’s always been very calm on court and I think that’s a good mentality. He doesn’t show a lot of emotions also, similar to myself I would say… But also, I think his game style is very aggressive. He tries to play very fast, to dictate the game… He plays very close to the line and very fast, doesn’t give you a lot of time. I think it’s a good advantage for him already.”
· He was a champion skier in Italy from the age of eight to 12, before opting to focus on tennis at 13, and left home to train at the Riccardo Piatti Academy.
· When he was seven, he did not touch a racket for a year, instead playing football alongside his skiing.*
· He speaks Italian, German and English, coming as he does from the northern German-speaking region of Italy.
· He played only a limited junior tour, not competing at any of the Majors, and reaching only 133 in the junior ranks. [NB He passed that rank in the seniors before he turned 18]
· Of that decision, he said: “I always was searching for the players who played better than me. I was trying to play a higher level than I was.”*
· He says his best quality is staying calm.
· His favourite tournament is the US Open and favourite ATP city is Rome.
· His birthday, 16 August, falls within days of Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Pete Sampras—and the next youngest player in the top 100, 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime.
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