Who is Jannik Sinner, the ATP Next Gen Finals surprise winner?

Jannik Sinner of Italy entered the ATP Next Gen Finals as the third reserve and went on to defeat pre-tournament favourite Alex de Minaur in the final.

Jannik Sinner of Italy celebrates with the winners trophy after defeating Alex de Minaur of Australia.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Jannik Sinner. The name was unknown to all except the most hardcore of tennis trackers, most of whom would have just given it a cursory glance. Until Sunday, that is.

The unheralded 18-year-old Italian won the ATP Next Gen Finals with a power-packed straights-sets victory over top seed and world No. 18 Alex de Minaur, the overwhelming pre-tournament favourite and the runner-up at the 2018 edition as well.

When I read the final scoreline of 4-2, 4-1, 4-2, the question that had been simmering all week finally boiled over. After all, the Italian only entered the tournament – played in Milan – as the third reserve! (Stefanos Tsitsipas is playing the ATP Tour Finals, and other Next Gen stars Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger Aliassime pulled out.)

Who is Jannik Sinner? I needed to know.

A 17-year-old Sinner began the year ranked 553 in the world, far from the talk of the next generation of ATP stars such as Tsitsipas, Sascha Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Shapovalov, de Minaur, Auger Aliassime and Frances Tiafoe.

Sinner plied his craft mostly on the ITF Futures and ATP Challenger circuits, winning two tournaments on each. As for ATP main draw play, he had just 16 matches, winning seven.

But his steady success in the Challenger and Futures tournaments raised his rankings to just outside the top 200 in the world midway through the year.

In May, Sinner was given a wild card to the Italian Open, where he beat American Sam Johnson in his first match at a Masters 1000 tournament. In July, he was granted direct entry at an ATP Tour tournament for the first time at Umag, Croatia, after which he broke into the world’s top 200.

A little over a month later, at the end of August, Sinner qualified for his first Grand Slam, the US Open, where incredibly he took a set of three-time Major champion Stan Wawrinka in a first-round loss. His performance brought him into the top 130 in the world, high enough to get direct entry into ATP 250 and 500 tournaments, and more steady performances brought him into the top 100 at the end of October – just a week before the ATP Next Gen Finals began.

As of now, the main sources of information on Sinner are the ATP and ITF websites, since little has been written about him in the media. The ATP says he was a champion skier in Italy from the ages of 8 to 12, and chose tennis over skiing at 13; his favourite shot is the backhand, surface is hard, tournament is the US Open and city on tour is Rome. His idol growing up was Roger Federer.

I will not make any prediction about young, upcoming tennis players, because, as I’ve written before, most have flattered to deceive. Most of the names mentioned earlier – Tsitsipas, Zverev, Shapovalov, de Minaur, Auger Aliassime and Tiafoe – are yet to seriously challenge the ruling oligarchy of tennis that is Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Medvedev alone has done that this year, reaching the US Open final.

But Sinner, for now, undoubtedly, has joined the list of Next Gen stars.