It would have been close if Jannik Sinner had become an avid skier or football player. But in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, the 20-year-old Italian showed on Tuesday why he is considered one of the greatest tennis talents. After a blistering fight, he had to give up after five sets against defending champion Novak Djokovic: 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 2-6, 2-6.
For example, Wimbledon lost a player who combines an apparent contradiction: he is mega-talented and a late bloomer. Until the age of thirteen he combined more sports. He was on the tennis court only twice a week. “As a kid I never focused on one sport because I liked doing multiple sports,” said the world number thirteen after his defeat to Djokovic.
In tennis, 13 years is considered late to start training seriously. There are countless examples of players who have specialized in tennis from an early age. Famous examples include Serena and Venus Williams, Andre Agassi and Richard Krajicek. And the current top ten players Alexander Zverev and Carlos Alcaraz also stood daily with a racket in their hands from an early age.
But in a sport where the culture is to start as early as possible and tennis schools and academies are seen as the foundation for a successful career, Sinner proves there is another way. The Italian was thirteen years old when he made the choice to go completely for tennis.
In the years before, skiing was more obvious. He grew up between the mountains on the border of Italy and Austria. At the age of eight, he won the national title in giant slalom in his age group. He also played football and tennis twice a week. He retired from tennis for a year when he was seven, but his father encouraged him to pick up the racket again.
As a young teenager, he decided to take up tennis permanently and entered the academy of Italian tennis coach Riccardo Piatti. But as a relative latecomer he had little success in the international youth tournaments in the early years. In comparison, Alcaraz, one year younger, currently labeled the greatest tennis talent, already took his first ATP world ranking points at the age of fourteen – an extremely young age.
At Wimbledon, Sinner showed what development he has gone through in recent years. He defeated the Spaniard in the fourth round. Or was it precisely because he only specialized at a later age?
In his book The Sports Genea American journalist David Epstein writes that researchers have found that athletes who have played multiple sports as children benefit more from their talent later in life than children who have specialized from an early age.
By practicing multiple sports in a less structured environment, children would develop their motor skills better. In the first years that children start specializing in a sport, they lag behind their peers who have been involved in a sport from an early age. But as the years go by, they have a broader palette of skills to draw from.
A well-known example is Roger Federer. The 20-time Grand Slam champion practiced multiple sports as a child: skiing, squash, table tennis, handball, basketball, football and tennis. He didn’t really care what sport he did, as long as it was a ball game. Federer was 10 years old when he started to specialize more in tennis.
The eight-time Wimbledon winner was talented and fanatical. But when his trainer transferred him to an older age group, the young Swiss quickly wanted to return to his friends. In addition to tennis, they also hung out together and sometimes played football. He thought that was just as important. It has never hindered his development.
Sinner also sees the advantages of trying multiple sports as a child. ‘It is good for your coordination if you do multiple sports. You learn to use your hands and feet in different ways, depending on the sports you practice.’
The Italian eventually chose tennis because he liked it the most. According to him, there is no ideal path that every athlete should follow in order to break through. ‘Everyone is different and can reach the top in their own way.’
It was no surprise that the 20-year-old tennis player did not beat defending champion Djokovic on Tuesday. According to Epstein, he is still too young to be successful. It takes time for the benefits of late specialization to surface. Federer was 21 when he first won Wimbledon.