'Don't look too far ahead' is a great piece of advice that is applicable to pretty much every situation in the world. Jannik Sinner has likely heard that advice a lot of times too, despite being just 19 years old. And during the Sofia Open final on Saturday he had a chance to experience, in real time, the full effect of not following it.
Jannik Sinner took the first set against Vasek Pospisil 6-4, and he broke right at the start of the second to go 1-0 up. His first ever ATP title was just five holds away, and given the way he had been serving all tournament, victory looked like a forgone conclusion.
But the young Italian was too young - and inexperienced - to remember that useful bit of advice in the heat of the moment. He started looking too far ahead, taking his eye off the ball, and that resulted in a slew of forehand errors which handed all the momentum to Pospisil.
Sinner lost four of the next five games, and the Canadian's serve suddenly took on intimidating proportions. Producing a big first delivery at all the right times, Pospisil won the second set 6-3 and proceeded to turn the decider into a cagey slugfest.
The match looked very different in the third set from what it was in the first. Jannik Sinner was no longer drawing errors at will out of his 30-year-old opponent, and he wasn't earning many free points on serve either. And Vasek Pospisil - who was also looking to win his first career title - was running from side to side like a madman, getting back more balls than anyone could have expected him to.
The slip-up at 1-0 in the second set had cost Sinner more than just the chance to close out the match in straights. It had also emboldened Pospisil, reminding him that he was facing a rank greenhorn who had no experience of getting over the finish line on the senior tour.
The Canadian played arguably the best tennis of his career in the second half of the match, and at the start of the tiebreaker he looked like the favorite to win.
Not only was Vasek Pospisil producing some terrific all-court play, but Jannik Sinner's ability to stay the course down the home stretch seemed in doubt too. The Italian has shown the world a lot of weapons in his short career so far, but physical conditioning isn't one of them.
On more than one occasion in the recent past Jannik Sinner has looked dominant for a couple of hours, only to lose steam towards the end of the match. Was he going to falter again, after getting so close to his breakthrough?
The point at 5-3 in the tiebreaker answered that question emphatically.
Does any youngster play the big points as well as Jannik Sinner?
Jannik Sinner was just one minibreak up, and at the business end of the breaker the Canadian seemed ready to put it all out on the court for one last hurrah. But Sinner was supremely unfazed by Pospisil's lion-hearted scrambling, to the point of almost looking disdainful.
He took a couple of effortless swings with his forehand and made the 30-year-old run for his life, before ending the rally with a sharply - and perfectly - angled crosscourt forehand.
That wasn't just a point; it was a statement. Pospisil was visibly deflated at losing it, and made a tame error on match point to hand Sinner the first true landmark of his career.
"Playing finals like this, 7-6 in the third… is always tough," Jannik Sinner said after the match. "But when you win, it is an even better win than winning 6-1 6-1… I am happy about the match, how I tried to stay there every point and I think it is a very special week for me."
Jannik Sinner couldn't have been more right about how winning 7-6 in the third is better than winning 6-1, 6-1. For a player of his age, knowing that you can get the W even when you don't have your best tennis - and for much of the second and third sets Sinner didn't - has got to be a huge confidence-booster. Moreover, a win like this is also an indication that you know how to play the big points well.
But we knew that second part about Jannik Sinner already. Almost exactly a year ago, he was giving Alex de Minaur a clinic in how to save break points. And while the Italian did falter in a couple of crunch moments this year - most notably in the first set against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros - in Sofia he reminded us just how clutch he can be when he is in the groove.
This week Jannik Sinner also showed us that he isn't quite as robotic as he first appeared to be. Before Sofia, Sinner always seemed to have the same expression on his face no matter what the match situation was. But in his Sofia matches - especially the ones against Alex de Minaur and Adrian Mannarino - he showed a lot more emotion.
He brought out aggressive fist pumps after winning big points. He punched or dropped his racket (he still doesn't go as far as smashing it) at making silly mistakes. And he even shot a few glares at the linespersons when close calls went against him.
In short, he looked more human than he did in any of his previous tournaments. And that will likely help him in future big matches; as Novak Djokovic will tell you, getting fired up in the most important moments is the best way to beat even your GOAT peers to the punch.
The once-in-a-generation talent that is Jannik Sinner
At the end of the day though, this was still just a tiny 250 tournament, held in the insignificant week before the ATP Finals. So why the big fuss over Jannik Sinner's win?
The big fuss is more about the player himself than his title run in isolation. For a while now Jannik Sinner has seemed like the brightest light among the younger generation, the Chosen One if you will. And a maiden career title seems destined to be remembered as the point where it all started, the important piece of trivia that tennis fans will throw around years from now.
'When and where did the great Jannik Sinner win his first title? It was at Sofia 2020, a tournament that would've otherwise been totally forgotten.'
If that sounds like exaggeration, just take a look at Jannik Sinner's game. The man can seemingly do everything, and has no glaring weaknesses. He can serve big, return bigger, smack groundstroke winners for fun, and even unfurl magical lobs and no-look passes (one of which can be seen at the 3:36 mark in the video below) that are straight out of the Roger Federer playbook.
I've almost never seen a player with whom it is impossible to tell which the stronger wing is, but that's the case with Jannik Sinner. One match you think his backhand (especially the crosscourt version) is his biggest weapon, but the next match you are convinced his forehand is his best asset.
Either way, the easy power he generates off both wings is not something that can be taught. Whether it's the forehand or the backhand, a Jannik Sinner groundstroke is special.
We've seen that kind of effortless power before of course - most notably in Tomas Berdych. But while many might say Sinner would be lucky to have a career like Berdych's, something tells me the Italian is destined for much greater things.
Sure, Jannik Sinner does have a couple of things he needs to iron out. The backhand slice, for one, is not very effective (or used much at all), while the net game is very much a work in progress.
But those are things that are usually learned later in life, as we've seen in the case of Dominic Thiem or even Rafael Nadal. And Sinner's touch and balance, both of which are already at top 10 levels, suggest that he will have no trouble adapting his game or adding new wrinkles to it.
The forehand pass on the dead run that he hit against Mannarino in the second set of their semifinal (which can be seen at the 2:51 mark in the video below) is a good example of that. Jannik Sinner is not the quickest player in the world, but even when he struggles to get to the ball, he can reflex it back into an uncomfortable position for the opponent. That is as clear a hallmark of a great player as any.
The last time I felt dead sure that a still-unproven youngster was going to win multiple Majors, was when Alexander Zverev won the St. Petersburg title back in 2016. I've been made to regret that prediction since, partly because of Zverev's frustrating lack of conviction in his game and partly because there are now serious doubts about his ability to be a leader of the sport. Will Jannik Sinner make me regret talking up his future potential too?
He certainly could. The man hasn't even gone beyond the quarterfinals of a Slam yet, and he has come nowhere close to winning a big title of any kind. For all we know, he could get afflicted by a double fault disease worse than Felix Auger-Aliassime, or lose interest in the day-to-day grind like Nick Kyrgios.
Jannik Sinner could very well go on to become a journeyman instead of a world-beater. Or worse still, he could become a cautionary tale about the dangers of early burnout. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he won't turn into any of those things.
'Don't look too far ahead', we've been told countless times. But just this once, let us actually look ahead. Let us imagine how great it would be if a nice, grounded kid like Jannik Sinner took over the sport, and ruled the tour like the dignified king that the tennis community deserves.
He certainly has the game and the personality for it. There would be nothing more apt than a generational talent like Jannik Sinner defining an entire generation with his success.
But no pressure, kid. Don't look too far ahead.Published 15 Nov 2020, 02:52 IST