If Jannik Sinner is going to win Wimbledon, he must do it the hard way

If Jannik Sinner is going to win Wimbledon, he is going to have to do it the hard way. That much is already clear. Some might suggest there is no easy way to go the distance at the All England Club, but there are surely easier ways to win than this.

After Sinner’s stilted victory over Yannick Hanfmann on Monday, the world No 1 might have ceded the favourite tag to Carlos Alcaraz: the defending champion who breezed through his opening match. After three days at SW19, the Spaniard must be the frontrunner ahead of the Italian.

Alcaraz, 21, has impressed with two straight-sets wins, while Sinner, 22, has only touched his best tennis in fleeting passages of play. It was the case for Sinner on Monday, and it was the case on Wednesday, though admittedly against an intriguing opponent. To Jannik Sinner, Matteo Berrettini is a friend and compatriot; to everyone else, he is a former Wimbledon finalist.

And frankly, you wouldn’t have assumed a friendship between Berrettini and the Australian Open champion, given the way these players were brutalising the ball. There was something harsh and clinical about Berrettini’s work, but in the best way. Under the closed Centre Court roof, there was an enduring echo to the slap of his racket against the ball, and to the ensuing “ooo”s in the crowd. Across the net, Sinner was tasked with finding counters.

One might see the slender Sinner and assume that galloping across the grass, elongating points, and slowly sapping Berrettini’s strength would be the answer – suppressing power with guile. But while Sinner’s frame is more slender than his compatriot’s, his power is comparative.

Berrettini (right) and Sinner engaged in a brutal battle on Centre Court (Getty Images)
Berrettini (right) and Sinner engaged in a brutal battle on Centre Court (Getty Images)

So maybe the notion of a subtler strategy seemed cowardly to Sinner. Ultimately, he matched Berrettini’s ruthlessness with his own brand, comprising pace and precision. In that way, he too was ending points as quickly as they began. When he cannoned one serve into the speedometer, threatening to break it before it could tell him how quickly he had done so, the gasps were equal to any aimed at Berrettini's more thunderous moments.

Yet Sinner’s movement was key, too. The 22-year-old glided nicely against Hanfmann, and that swiftness helped here. All the while, Berrettini stubbornly held serve to take the first set to a tiebreak. At first, it seemed that his power might win out, but again Sinner’s movement proved crucial; in one rally, it twice looked as if he’d have to climb into the crowd to keep the point alive, but he somehow rescued the ball without doing so, before Berrettini sent a smash long.

Berrettini often looked as though he couldn't believe the ball was arriving on his racket as quickly as it had left. Then he would err, in a trend that took Sinner to victory in the tiebreak.

Sinner pulls off a tweener, before Berrettini later plays a shot around the post (Getty Images)
Sinner pulls off a tweener, before Berrettini later plays a shot around the post (Getty Images)

Midway through the second set, a Berrettini backhand almost changed the dimension of the match – though that moment would actually arrive later. It was a shot scythed low over the net and just inside the line, yielding break point at 2-3. The next point saw Berrettini punch a forehand long, and it was a chance gone, but not the chance. Although the 28-year-old knuckled his hands into his hips and looked to the sky – or where it would have been if not for the roof – he soon gathered himself. Two points later, he had the break as Sinner failed to beat the net.

Unfortunately for Berrettini, he failed to consolidate. Sinner broke back at once, and he did consolidate. From there, the younger man looked the likelier to go on and win the set, although he would require another tiebreak. Still, as the rallies grew longer, Sinner benefited in the way that was previously anticipated. Both men were still firing on considerable cylinders, but Sinner was nudging his shots that bit deeper, squeezing them that bit tighter inside the lines.

As Sinner brought up set point, Berrettini grimaced at the lights above. When Sinner won it, Berrettini hid his tanned face in the white of his shirt.

Berrettini is lured to the net as Sinner beats him with a lob (Getty Images)
Berrettini is lured to the net as Sinner beats him with a lob (Getty Images)

But there was no need to hide in the third set. Berrettini began with a break, before banking another for 4-1. He was getting even closer to the lines than Sinner, often planting shots on them. When he wasn’t, he was simply crushing the ball into the lawn. All the while, errors were creeping into Sinner’s game. Soon came 6-2, as Berrettini emphatically wedged his foot between the door and the frame, denying Sinner entry into round three. For the time being.

The errors kept creeping for Sinner, who surrendered another break at the start of the fourth set, as momentum seemed to desert him with concerning pace. Was the weight of expectation pressing down on those lofty shoulders?

Just when it looked like it might be, he broke back. And just like that, the tension seemed to seep back into Berrettini. And as the set wore on, back and forth it seeped, like infectious goo. After Berrettini faltered while trying to break for a 6-5 lead, he grimaced again and banged his racket onto his cap repeatedly. Stupido, stupido.

A few minutes later, he was double-faulting to hand Sinner match point. Yet his next two serves were too much for the world No 1. From the very brink of defeat, Berrettini had muscled his way into another tiebreak, the crowd’s roars acting like a kind of psychological steroid.

They desperately wanted more. Late in the tiebreak, Berrettini provided it, saving another match point. But he had already given so much. And that, as it turned out, was all that he could give. On the second attempt, Sinner sealed victory, earned relief, made his escape. His Wimbledon bid continues, for now.