Australian Open: Cahill’s Goal For Sinner Is To Learn And Enjoy The Journey

Jannik Sinner (photo: Tennis Australia/George Sal)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 28, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

By any measure or metric, World No. 4 Jannik Sinner is a much-improved tennis player. It shows in his win-loss record, the quality and strength of his serving statistics and also this: he’s dropped just one set in rolling to six victories during the Australian fortnight.

So, it should come as little surprise that the young, 22-year-old Italian from South Tyrol is playing in the final of his first major at the Australian Open Sunday evening. He’s taken the draw he’s been given and turned it on its head. His wins have come against: Botic van de Zandschulp, qualifier Jesper de Jong, No. 26 seed Sebastian Baez, No. 16 seed Karen Khachanov, No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev and top seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic.

When Sinner walks out on Rod Laver Arena to face World No. 3 Daniil Medvedev of Russia, who is going after his second Grand Slam title in his sixth major final, he will have spent plenty of time preparing for the title match with his coaches, Darren Cahill and Simone Vagnozzi. His team also includes fitness trainer Umberto Ferreira and physio Giacomo Naldi. Together, they comprise Team Sinner.

While it’s up to Sinner to absorb the information his team instills in him, as Cahill explained during a news conference Friday after his protege upset 10-time AO champion Djokovic, 6-1, 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-3, in the semifinal round, it’s “part of our roles as coaches to help him learn from experiences, and build that resilience.

“I think the match he played against Novak at Wimbledon went a long way to teaching Jannik where he needed to get better,” Cahill said. “When he was up two sets to love and lost that five-set match against Novak, you’re able to sit down with him and talk about where the improvements needed to be made, and credit to him, he absorbed it. He gets on the practice court, he takes the information, and he loves to work on things that are going to make him a better tennis player.

“For us, as coaches, it was really rewarding today to sit there and see him do some of those things. We knew that Novak was struggling in the first couple of sets. Everybody could see that. But we also knew that Novak was going to make a huge push in the third and fourth sets. He did an amazing job.

“It was great to learn from that match and see him go with Novak early in the third and certainly early in the fourth. He did a great job to absorb a lot of that pressure that Novak threw at him. In the end I thought the last couple of sets was amazing tennis from both players, and Jannik was able to find a way to win.”

Cahill joined Sinner’s camp back in June 2022, four months after the Italian hired Vagnozzi and replaced his entire team that had been led by Italian Ricardo Piatti. The veteran Australian Cahill, who has been a longtime ESPN tennis analyst and pundit, previously coached Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Simona Halep. All of them have been major champions.

“We addressed everything,” Cahill said, recalling his arrival. “There was certainly from a tennis perspective, areas of Jannik’s game – he was already a great player, already a potential top 10. I think he’d already been top 10 before we started. You can’t be top 10 without having the platform of some incredible weapons, and he had those.

“I think the natural progression that Jannik needed to make everybody could see, but I think the coaching comes down to be able to give those messages in the right way. That he would believe in it, absorb it, and then do it on the practice court. Then, eventually do it in matches. Which is kind of what we’re seeing a little bit of now.”

Cahill has seen in the 6-foot-2-inch, 167-pound Sinner many of the same qualities he nurtured in Hewitt, Agassi and Halep: a positive work ethic, purpose, desire, a willingness to learn and a high tennis IQ. In five years, Sinner has risen in the ATP Rankings from No. 78 to No. 4.

“Jannik has all that. He’s got a sense of humor. I think you can get a bit of a sense for it on the court in after-match interviews. We see it every single day,” Cahill said. “He’s a good guy, and he’s a fun-loving guy. He likes to be around people he enjoys, whether that be before we started working with him or with us in our team at the moment. We have a really good feeling within the team.”

Last year Sinner finished the season by winning 20 of his last 22 matches, which included titles in Beijing and Vienna, a runner-up finish at the ATP Finals and leading Italy to the Davis Cup. He’s won nine of his last 10 matches against Top 5 opponents.

Whether Sinner wins or loses – and he’s taken his share of losses, tough losses, as well in compiling a career 196-74 record — nothing changes within the team, Cahill stresses. “Everybody enjoys each other’s company. It’s been really important for him to enjoy the journey as well,” he said.

According to Cahill, Sinner possesses the qualities he believes a lot of the great champions in the game have, but feels he needs start winning consistently to let that come to fruition. “So he’s making little steps. He had a good finish to the year last year. He gained a lot of belief from what he was able to do,” he emphasized.

“Jannik had some pretty poor records, head-to-head records against some of the players up until last year, and he was able to knock down a couple of hurdles and get a win over Tsitsipas, get a win over Medvedev, get a win over Djokovic. And they’re important wins, because when you play a certain style of tennis and you keep taking losses, you can’t keep doing the same thing. You have to change and your game has to evolve.

“That’s what Jannik has been attempting to do for the last couple of years. That’s a great quality and that’s what he needs to continue to do. Never stop evolving and never stop getting better.”

Cahill sums it up this way: “It’s step by step and just trying to keep knocking over those hurdles,” he said of Sinner. “The important thing for Jannik is he’s going to treat today like tomorrow and like the next day and just have fun and enjoy himself.”

Around Melbourne Park

Following Aryna Sabalenka‘s second Australian Open title Saturday, congratulatory messages began streaming in via social media from near and far. Among them were from Hall of Famers Billie Jean King and Rod Laver, and women’s World No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

By the numbers

After going 7-0 to win her second Australian Open title Saturday without dropping a set, Aryna Sabalenka joined some very select company. She is just the fifth woman to achieve the feat of winning a major championship without dropping a set. The others are either in the Hall of Fame or destined for enshrinement. They include: Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Ashleigh Barty.

“Quotable …”

“I think everyone who saw the match today saw that I was still struggling with my serve, so I can still be such a – more better? I can still improve so much more than I already am doing now. So finding those little details at the moment is, I think, a very fun process.

“Also, I think what motivates me is that the Grand Slams at the moment, they are making things better for us year by year. So then it’s fun to give that back.

“So, I’m really happy to be here and then to play in front of a lot of people in Kia Arena this year. Then as a player you want to do well.

“So those are the things that keep me going.”

— Six-time Australian Open women’s wheelchair singles champion Diede de Groot of the Netherlands, during her champion’s news conference, describing what continues to motivate her to excel after winning 14 straight major wheelchair singles titles.