Can anyone beat Jannik Sinner?

Tommy Paul and his fitness guru and best friend, Franco Herrero, were watching Jannik Sinner play an early round match the other day. 

Like everyone else, they had their jaws on the floor for most of it. Sinner hasn’t lost a singles match in 2024. He’s playing tennis at a level with which the rest of the sport is not familiar. 

Herrero, who is from Argentina, turned to Paul and told him Argentines have an expression for describing what Sinner is doing right now on the tennis court.  

Loose translation – “He’s playing naked,” Paul said. 

Not literally, of course, but you get the idea. Everyone in the locker room at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells knew exactly what Herrero was talking about.

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(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Sinner plays Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals on Saturday, the next chapter in arguably the best new rivalry in tennis. The lords of the sport are banking on Sinner-Alcaraz becoming the next iteration of Borg-McEnroe, Navratilova-Evert, Federer-Nadal, Nadal-Djokovic, and the rest of the iconic rivalries that define their era. 

A year ago, Alcaraz was in the driver’s seat, the chosen one. At 19, the youngest men’s world No 1 ever and already a Grand Slam champion at a time when teenagers weren’t supposed to be able to do that anymore. By November, even after becoming Wimbledon champion, he was already warning everyone to watch out, that Sinner was coming for him, and that the Italian may very well take the No 1 ranking in 2024.    

Not even three months in, Sinner is making Alcaraz look prescient. Sinner has beaten him the last two times they have played.

“I don’t know how I’m gonna approach the game, how I’m going to approach the match, he’s the best player in the world right now without a doubt,” Alcaraz said of Sinner on Thursday night, after surviving a bee swarm and Alexander Zverev to move within two wins of defending his Indian Wells title. “It’s going to be be the most difficult match that I’m going to play this year.”

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This happens in tennis. The planets and stars align in a certain way, a player’s skills, talent, health and confidence all reach their apotheosis at the same time, and then that player is just better than everyone else, and they know it. 

Martina Navratilova said during her period of dominance in the early 1980s she would walk to the net for the coin toss, look in her opponent’s eyes, and know that they already knew they were going to lose. Rafael Nadal half-joked about the time in his career when he was maybe 30 per cent better than everyone else.

Novak Djokovic won his final two matches in 2010 and his first 41 in 2011. He wore invincibility well and loved every minute of it. Iga Swiatek won 37 consecutive matches in 2022. She was relieved when it was finally over, the expectations and pressure of keeping it going just a bit too maddening for her. 

Sinner said he has not recollection of Djokovic’s streak. He was nine years old at the time, and far more focused on skiing and soccer, his first loves. Tennis was a mere side-hustle then for young Jannik, who was a junior skiing champion.

He comes from the mountains of northeast Italy near the Austrian border and makes every effort on and off the court not to let anything rile him in either direction. He knows how many matches he has won in a row — it’s 18 if you include the Davis Cup — but mostly because everyone else tells him all the time, and he knows how quickly it can all go in the other direction, especially in best-of-three sets matches.

“For sure you have confidence, yes,” he said last week. “It can go fast to go in the wrong way. I just try to keep it as long as possible. Maybe it’s over in two days, maybe not. We cannot predict the future. As I always say, we live in the present moment.”

That is a good place to be if you are Jannik Sinner right now. 

The data, which comes from TennisViz and Tennis Data Innovations, which collect ball and player tracking data with high-speed cameras and analyze them in real-time to understand the effectiveness of every shot, suggests he has raised his game to another level. 

Last year, Sinner’s improvement was all about his serve. He hit it harder, and to better spots once he started bringing his feet next to each other before rising into the air, getting a little more height on his jump and a little more leverage on his motion.

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At Indian Wells, his forehand and backhand are registering at some of the highest levels the dataheads have ever seen. 

On a scale of one to 10 that accounts for velocity and placement, Sinner’s forehand averaged 8.8 the past year, well above the tour average of 7.6. At Indian Wells, it’s scoring at 9.3. His backhand averaged 8.3 for the last year. It’s an 8.6 at Indian Wells. The tour average is 7.2.

Perhaps even more valuable than his blistering strokes and clean, crisp movement, one of Sinner’s not-so-secret weapons has been around this week. His father, Hanspeter, is here. The elder Sinner is a chef, who often cooks for his son and his team during tournaments. One of Sinner’s coaches, Darren Cahill, who has been around many teams, says that this one eats better than any other.

Ben Shelton hung with Sinner for a bit during their round of 16 match earlier this week, pushing him to a first-set tiebreaker. Then Sinner turned on the afterburners and won six of the next seven games. 

Sinner said it’s just the result of hard work over the past two years, and trust that he could get to the place where some of the best minds in the game always thought he could go. He said the game doesn’t feel so different now that he is winning all the time. The ball looks the same size, and feels the same on his racket. 

“In my mind there is always a new challenge, there is a new opponent,” he said. “I have to be very careful, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on.”

That new opponent at Indian Wells is already a familiar one. He and Alcaraz have played seven times. He has the edge, 4-3, and has everyone thinking he may not play the supporting role to Alcaraz for the next decade, which looked like a sure bet not that long ago. 

Daniil Medvedev, who lost a two-set lead to Sinner in the Australian Open final in January, was asked which player would win more Grand Slams in his career. 

“At the moment you want to say Sinner, right?,” Medvedev said. “But Carlos is super strong also. You know what, let’s put it this way, Carlos and Sinner with the same number of Slams in 10 years. Then, at the end of their career, I don’t know.”

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