The Triumph of a Sinner and the Power of Sport

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Bill Simons

Roger retired, Rafa retreated and Novak lost.

And “Kaboom!” We got our first Grand Slam final since 2005 without any of the Big Three.

Enter No. 3 Daniil Medvedev, a 6’ 6” Russian octopus we can describe as bright, candid, transparent, volatile, fun-loving and unorthodox. Plus the 27-year-old is good at both tennis and pissing off his coach, fans across the globe and his rivals. Just ask Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev or Max Cressy.

Tonight’s new-look Aussie Open final also featured a 22-year-old with a curious name, a wicked running forehand and a knack for making good decisions. For years Jannik Sinner has checked off all the right boxes. At 12, he switched from skiing to tennis. More recently he bid farewell to his foundational coach Riccardo Piatti and hired a whole new team, including world-class mentor Darren Cahill. He put on muscle (but not too much) and improved his serve, fitness, movement, variety and defense.

The green newbie with red hair suffered many losses in five-set matches while gaining valuable experience and mental toughness. Now he’s calm at crunch time.

This season, the purest power-hitter in tennis built on his two November wins over Djokovic and a triumphant Davis Cup run and came to Melbourne riding a mighty wave of confidence. “I’m really happy, I came here with a smile,” he said.

Coming into tonight’s final, Jannik had to be pleased. Yes, this was his first-ever Slam final and he had a career 6-3 losing record to Medvedev. But Down Under, the son of a chef was serving up one tasty victory after another, including wins over No. 15 seed Karen Khachanov, No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev and No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic.

Plus, Jannik had beaten Medvedev in their three most recent meetings. And in Melbourne, the Russian had had to endure three grueling five-set matches, including one that ended at 3:39 AM, and he’d been on court for almost six hours longer than Sinner.

Certainly the younger, fresher, more in shape and increasingly confident Sinner would continue his surge against the battle-weary veteran. Goodness, Djokovic on his “home court” couldn’t even get a breakpoint against Jannik. Pundits and gamblers alike agreed that Sinner would be the first Italian ever to win the Aussie Open.  

Jim Courier suggested, “Jannik’s only weakness is the fear of the unknown in a final where he is trying to do a life-changing feat.”

But what changed was that it was the supposedly exhausted Medvedev who seemed fresher. The great defender chose to be the aggressor. Blasting away, yet not taking that many chances, he served big and stepped way in on his serve. Repeatedly he created severe angles and opened the court. “There’s a better chance of seeing a unicorn than Medvedev missing two backhands in a row,” mused Australian Open radio.

Sinner had held his serve 45 straight times, but Daniil broke early to go up 3-1. “This is very un-Medvedev-like. He’s looking for every opportunity to strike and go forward. He’s flipped the script,” said Patrick McEnroe. Well, Daniil is the game’s great disrupter. He loves to go against the grain.

The chessmaster stepped in, returned serve efficiently and prevailed in long metronomic rallies that bubbled with inspiring corner-to-corner athleticism.

While Sinner was tentative and overwhelmed, Daniil, said broadcaster Chris Bowers, “is playing out of his skin.” The Russian scored two breaks and grabbed the first set 6-3.

Then, at last, Sinner gave us a hint of his mettle as he saved four break points in an 11-minute game early in the second set. Jannik’s hopes briefly rose. But Medvedev said, “No way!” and punished a dropshot to score a break. Holding at serve, he sprinted to a decisive 5-1 lead, then snuffed out a Sinner counterattack and won the second set 6-3.

Assuredly, one way for Daniil not to get tired was to win in straight sets. In ascendance, the 2021 US Open champ seemed poised to claim his second Slam.

But Sinner had other ideas. At long last the baby-faced man who’d taken it to Djokovic seemed to break the fever, and managed to battle Medvedev on equal terms. He began to hit out freely, while Medvedev’s stratospheric play settled down to Earth. The Russian’s serve was now less imposing and his forehand speed dipped.

Still, at 4-4 in the third set, Medvedev was within just six points of victory. Then he suffered three forehand errors and his hopes of snatching a straight-set win vanished. The resurgent Sinner scored a break to grab the third set 6-4. “Match on!”

Jannik upped his level and his confidence rose. As a mighty tide was turning, Meddy was churning. The increasingly wobbly warrior now had been on court for almost 24 hours. Certainly his legs were tiring. Was he feeling the ghosts of Aussie Opens past? In 2022 he’d been up two sets over Nadal and leading in the third when he faltered badly. Still, tonight Daniil wasn’t facing legends like Nadal and Djokovic, who’d downed him in previous finals.

But he faced a popular young foe. And the many delirious Italians in the crowd soon roared loud, giving Laver Arena the pulsating feel of a gladiatorial Roman coliseum. And as the war of attrition rumbled on, John McEnroe observed, “This is all about the serve – Medvedev holding on and hoping Sinner tightens up.”

But the Italian held his nerve and his serve, attacked at crucial moments, and then, deep into the fourth set, pounced on a second serve. As he’d done 56 minutes earlier, Sinner surged late in the set and again prevailed 6-4 to even the battle at two sets all.

Would Medvedev become the first player to win a Slam having won four five-set matches or become the first man to twice lose a Slam despite having been up by two sets in the final?

Now the suddenly fearless 22-year-old seemed poised to prevail. As the Russian octopus lost his grip, Sinner won an astounding 39-stroke rally.

Then in the sixth game of the fifth set, Daniil suffered two forehand errors and made an ill-conceived charge to the net. “Is his mind becoming a little foggy?” asked Chris Fowler. Jannik then crushed one of his deadly forehands to break and go up 4-2. While one woman clutched her stuffed carrot, Italians all over the world chanted and prayed on their rosaries, hoping their hero might become the first Italian to win a Slam in 49 years and the first Italian to win the Aussie Open ever.

Then, just minutes later, the man who almost four hours earlier had been so nervous and whose play had been so tepid blasted a forehand winner to score an astounding 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 comeback victory. Tears flowed, hugs abounded, and glee and disbelief mixed together in a stunning moment of high drama.

Here we saw the power of youth, the value of patience and the glory of sheer talent. A new king for a new generation lifted a bright trophy. In ecstasy, having won his first Slam, Jannik embraced his considerable team, while Medvedev, a rather noble figure in defeat, sat in solitude as he reflected on his third Aussie Open final loss.

Recently Sinner’s co-coach Simone Vagnozzi referred to Jannik’s mountain roots in northern Italy. He said that in that region, people “don’t speak so much.” So in the humble tradition of so many athletes with Mediterranean roots, from Joe DiMaggio to Pete Sampras and Rafa Nadal, Sinner modestly spoke of his triumph and told the crowd, “I’m a little bit young, but it is what it is.”

But Peter Marcato had a different take. “What we have seen tonight,” said the broadcaster, “is the extraordinary power of sport.”

Also reporting: Vinay Venkatesh and Steve Pratt

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