An eviction notice has been served.
“This is Novak’s living room. This is his home. I know from my experience that he would like to keep that as his home.”
That was Radek Stepanek, two-time doubles Grand Slam champion, speaking to the media earlier in the tournament when asked about a proposed meeting between the world No 1 and defending champion and Jannik Sinner, the young Italian looking to usurp him.
If you have watched any of Sinner’s previous matches this Australian Open, it will not have shocked you to see his name in the final, even though it meant getting past the defending champion.
This is not the first time Sinner has beaten Djokovic. These two know each other well, having faced off in the ATP Tour Finals twice. They won a match each. In the group stage, it went the Italian’s way. In the final, Djokovic did what he does best. But the 22-year-old got his revenge a week later, defeating the Serbian in the Davis Cup.
Sinner’s rise has been coming, and he has been patient doing so, telling The Athletic last year: “I’m the kind of player who needs just a little bit of time”.
Though he is not yet a household name his trajectory is heading in the right direction. Last year he achieved his first Masters 1000 — the level below Grand Slam — title in Canada. At Wimbledon he reached the semi-finals for the first time. And now he is in his first Grand Slam final having defeated the record Grand Slam winner (he has 24 of them) for the first time over five sets. In doing so he has become the first Italian man or woman to reach the Australian Open singles final.
This year, in this Open, he has dropped just one set all tournament, to Djokovic, though he faced no break points in the match.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Carlos Alcaraz has predicted that 2024 would be the year Sinner sees the No 1 next to his name, before quickly realising what he had said and correcting himself, “He’s going to give himself the chance to reach the No 1.”
Maybe he was right the first time. So who is he?
Last year at Melbourne Park, The Athletic was present at Sinner’s pre-tournament practice session. After the session, he was mobbed by young fans desperate for a signed ball, selfie, or any fleeting moment with their new hero. But the majority of spectators just passed him by.
Now he’s headlining Rod Laver Arena, entertaining a crowd that have brought their tricolore flags, “forza Jannik” cardboard signs, and — most eye-catchingly — their carrot costumes. These are in tribute to his strawberry-blonde hair.
That Davis Cup victory has led to more faces doing a double take when they see him in the streets. “For sure I get more recognized,” reflects Sinner, “I couldn’t imagine how big of a deal this was, no? And then after, after you realize how important Davis Cup is”.
It’s quite a long way from the small town of Sexten in northern Italy, where his parents Hanspeter and Siglinde worked at a ski lodge and where he first picked up a racket at age three. His family have stayed at home during this tournament and will continue to do so, Sinner said after defeating Djokovic.
Sinner’s super skill is his forehand. Matt Futterman wrote, “People have been commenting on his forehand heaviness since he was 19 years old”. (Heaviness rates the combination of spin and speed on the forehand side.) In the sunshine at Melbourne, you can see the felt particles flying off the ball as Sinner’s whips through the forehand motion.
If Djokovic owns Rod Laver Arena, Sinner has rented out the backline for these two weeks. His lanky 6ft 2in frame means he can cover it with a lunge. He can endure a long rally, though he is best served keeping points short and sharp.
He has spent time improving his serve, which you can go deeper on here. The gains, though seemingly marginal to us mere mortals, have been instrumental to his recent long stays in tournaments, forcing his opponents to work harder and think faster.
Djokovic may have been part architect of Sinner’s game too. When asked on court by Jim Courier about past meetings between the two and if the 10-time Australian Open champion had given a young Sinner any advice, the new finalist told the crowd at Rod Laver that, in 2017, Djokovic “told me after the match to try to move the ball a little bit more and be a bit more unpredictable.” He continued: “The serve has improved a lot but I have the feeling that I can still improve a lot.”
The way he speaks about his coaching team, it is like he sees Simone Vagnozzi and Darren Cahill as an extension of himself, each member providing a different facet to the make-up of a world-class professional tennis player. Cahill, who has coached Simona Halep and others to Grand Slam titles, looks after “the emotional part, talking in the right way before the match, giving confidence, not only to me but also to the team”. Vagnozzi looks after the more tactical/technical part. Together they work exceptionally well: “If there is a problem, we talk together, we find a solution together, and honestly, we are quite all pretty relaxed.”
He knows to just take it a point at a time, “I just try to stay focused, to stay calm. I enjoy every moment on the court and also off the court.”
Sinner has all the skills at his disposal to become the new landlord of these bright blue courts. It is quite the contrast from his early years in Italy, where he was one of the country’s top junior skiers.
Now, though, tennis is sending him on an upwards trajectory.
(MARTIN KEEP/AFP via Getty Images)