Jannik Sinner is the hottest young star in men’s tennis. On Sunday, the 19-year-old will have a chance to become the youngest champion in Miami Open presented by Itau history when he plays Hubert Hurkacz. To understand the teen’s rise, you must know that winning has not been his priority.
In September 2019, the #NextGenATP star was eating dinner a restaurant in Dolceacqua, Italy, less than an hour’s drive from Monte Carlo. Also at the table was his coach, Riccardo Piatti. More notable attendees were former World No. 1s Maria Sharapova and Marat Safin. Sharapova had recently started working with Piatti.
It was a night of friends sharing stories and simply enjoying the evening. But Sinner, who was two when Sharapova won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2004, was in attendance by design according to Piatti.
“I wanted Jannik to understand the mentality of a No. 1. Maria has priorities,” Piatti told ATPTour.com. “When she is on the court, she is watching the ball, hitting the ball and doing everything perfect. When she plays points, she’s focussed to play the points. When she’s off the court, she’s focussed on the fitness part, physical part. When she finishes everything, she’s social.
“Maria is an example that she has a great mentality to be a champion.”
Up until that point, Sinner was still relatively unknown outside of hardcore fans. The teen had not yet cracked the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, nor had he competed in the Next Gen ATP Finals. But Piatti was desperate for his charge to spend as much time around champions as possible to learn even the smallest lessons from them.
“It’s not me explaining [a lesson], but another one like Nadal or Maria,” Piatti said. “He saw the mentality from these players. Maria was very, very important for me and for him.”
Less than two months later, Sinner captured the Next Gen ATP Finals trophy as a wild card and then won his third ATP Challenger Tour title the following week in Ortisei. Although he enjoys winning, that has never been his biggest focus. In nearly every press conference he participates in, Sinner tells reporters about how he is focussed on improving and the “long road” ahead of him.
That is why Piatti, who has worked with the likes of Ivan Ljubicic and Richard Gasquet, was so excited when he got a call from Carlos Moya ahead of this year’s trip to Australia. The Spaniard wanted to see if Sinner would be Nadal’s quarantine practice partner.
“Of course I was very happy, because you need to live with these guys. These guys are quite simple and focussed about what they are doing and Jannik likes [this] and he understands that Rafa is quite similar to him. The only difference is he won 20 Slams. Small difference,” Piatti said, cracking a laugh. “He understands, ‘Okay, if I do everything correct and I’m young and I need to continue like this, I can reach some of my dreams.’ It was in the perfect moment of his career.
“I think that these 14 days for Jannik were perfect to understand Rafa’s mind.”
However shocking it is, the Italian has only been fully focussed on tennis since he was 14. It wasn’t until then that he moved to Piatti’s academy in Bordighera from San Candido — which is near the Austrian border — and moved on from skiing.
“That was kind of a life-changer for me, because I never played tennis. I only played two times a week tennis. When I came there, I practised every day, morning and afternoon,” Sinner said. “For me, that was very tough in the beginning, so that’s what helped me, just working hard every day and [trying not to] lose energy on court, because [your day is] already tough. If you lose extra energy without any sense, it’s even tougher.”
Sinner is a sponge. If he wins, great. If he learns, even better. That is part of the reason Sinner has quickly become one of the calmest players on Tour, showing great maturity despite his age. Another reason behind this, according to Piatti, is his skiing background.
“If you ski or you make some race, you understand immediately that you need to be concentrated and if you make a mistake, you are out. In tennis, he was thinking that was the game,” Piatti said. “He liked tennis because he can make a mistake and then immediately come back and play again… he’s coming from a small village and his parents are good workers. He knows that everybody needs to work and if they want something, they need to do very well.”
Sinner comes from a humble family. Both of his parents work in a restaurant. His father Johann is a chef, and his mother Siglinde is a waitress.
“I saw that he was playing well, but what took my attention was outside the court. He was a 14-year-old kid, but he controlled the mind of a young man of 17, 18, 19,” Piatti said. “Immediately you see these kinds of kids. Jannik was like that. He has the personality to stay with everybody, so he was quite mature. I was focussed on that and after that I tried to help build his game.”
During professional tennis’ five-month suspension last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Piatti would choose at least two matches per week for Sinner to watch. He didn’t want his charge to want the world’s best playing well, though.
“I showed not when Novak was playing well, but when Novak was playing badly. That was important for me,” Piatti said.
It was about figuring out how champions manage their tough moments and still win. Sinner has already learned from some of his own experiences. At last year’s US Open, the Italian let slip a two-set lead against Karen Khachanov, falling in a fifth-set tie-break. In the second half of that clash, he was clearly cramping. Afterwards, he called Piatti to ask what went wrong and if he wasn’t fit enough. Piatti believes it was the mental stress and hydration — or lack thereof — that led him to cramp, not his fitness. Sinner still managed to find a way to nearly win the match, and he learned from that.
A similar situation happened in Miami when he played Khachanov again. After losing a physically gruelling first set in the Florida heat, Sinner appeared headed out of the tournament. Instead, he found a way to win. Now, he is on the verge of becoming just the sixth teen to lift a Masters 1000 trophy. Win or lose, though, Piatti’s goals are much bigger.
“Of course, winning Slams and becoming No. 1. I spoke with him already that I already had two players, Milos Raonic and Ivan Ljubicic No. 3. Now the goal is different,” Piatti said. “I want someone [to accomplish] more and this project started many years ago. It is not just what is going to [happen] tomorrow [in Miami].”
Sinner is beginning to lose the element of surprise on Tour. Although he clearly has the game to compete against the world’s best — in last year’s Roland Garros quarter-finals, the Italian even went blow for blow in many rallies against Nadal before losing in straight sets — opponents will begin to learn his tendencies.
“Roger Federer when he won Milan the first time is not the Roger Federer playing now and it’s the same for Djokovic and Rafa. They’re improving a lot and they are changing a lot,” Piatti said. “I think Jannik has this kind of potential.”
Tomorrow, the world will see if Sinner is ready for Masters 1000 glory. But only time will tell just how many titles the Italian will rack up. For now, Piatti just wants his player to continue learning everything he can, even if it’s just by sitting at a dinner table.
“[This final is] an important moment, but not the last moment. It’s part of what he needs to do,” Piatti said. “I’m very happy that it came now, but the season is long and the process is long.”