By Michael Mewshaw
It’s been almost half a century since Italy won the Davis Cup. They managed that feat back in 1976 when the team was led by Adriano Panatta, a handsome, elegant player whose stylishness made one forget that he was a humble Roman whose father was a groundskeeper at the Parioli Tennis Club. In that same year, 1976, the Bel Adriano won the French Open, the lone Grand Slam title taken by an Italian in the Open Era. But soon, as cynics say, he ate his way out of the top ten, a victim of wine, women and Muratti cigarettes.
The 2023 Davis Cup team was led to the championship by a player who appears to be in all ways Panatta’s opposite. Jannik Sinner is a tall, pale carrot-topped native of the far north province of Alto Adige. His first love was skiing, and his father and mother worked in an Alpine resort as a chef and waitress. In retrospect Jannik’s rise to the top of the game seems almost as improbable as the weirdness of his faithful fans who often show up at matches dressed as carrots. Others arrive at the court carrying banners reading, “We are all Sinners.” If so, then Sinner might be seen as the savior of Italian tennis, which has suffered some hellish slumps.
Not that anyone expected Sinner to be a redeemer quite this early in his career. After winning the US Open in 2022 and Wimbledon in 2023, Carlos Alcaraz appeared poised to shoulder Novak Djokovic aside as No. 1. But in the second half of this year, Alcaraz has encountered problems. He’s suffered niggling injuries and according to some has also suffered a crisis of confidence. During the recent ATP finals in Torino, Russian Daniil Medvedev said that the sideline speed gun indicated that Alcaraz was hitting his groundstrokes 10 kph slower than earlier in the year.
Competitors were quick to notice and take advantage. Sinner promptly replaced Alcaraz as Djokovic’s strongest contender and beat the Serbian twice at the round robin competition in Torino. Then this past weekend in the Davis Cup semifinals in Malaga, Spain, he beat Djokovic again in the singles and returned later the same day to triumph over Novak in doubles. Remarkably, in the stretch of 11 days he became a three-time conqueror of Djokovic, an achievement no one else on the tour has come close to.
The Davis Cup final, Italy vs. Australia, was kind of an anti-climax, with Sinner easily triumphing over Alex DeMinaur 6-3, 6-0. Because Djokovic, along with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has dominated Grand Slam titles for the past two decades, journalists seemed to be cheering for Sinner or Alcaraz or anyone in fact to give them an excuse to thumb through their Thesaurus and recycle their cliches about a new tennis champion. Only time, as it always does, will tell. Two months from now the Australian Open starts in the skull-crackingly hot southern hemisphere summer.
While Jannik Sinner is certain to finish the two-week tournament as white as a ghost, it’s far from a sure thing that he’ll beat Djokovic who has a hammerlock on the tournament, having won it ten times. As Christmas approaches, I hope it’s not sacrilegious to pray that a Sinner will at long last relieve the game of Djokovic’s dominance.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 23 book, the most recent being “My Man in Antibes: Getting to Know Graham Greene”.