A quarter of the way to 2024, chaos is the order of the day in tennis

Let’s go back to last September. Jannik Sinner just lost in the round of 16 of the US Open to Alexander Zverev in a sweaty five-set mess.

He has never reached the final of a Grand Slam. He has only won one of the tournaments that sit just below that level, and that’s just in the last few weeks. No one questions his promise, but not many people predict a rocket ride to the top, or anything like what has happened since for the carrot-headed 22-year-old Italian.

Now let’s fast forward seven months…

“He is the best player in the world right now,” said Grigor Dimitrov, the 32-year-old Bulgarian who now knows this better than anyone.

Dimitrov was defeated by Sinner in the Miami Open final on Sunday, 6-3, 6-1. It was the 23rd win in 24 starts this season for Sinner. As a result, he reached the No. 2 spot in the new rankings, a huge achievement for him and the latest sign of tumult in a season that has been full of them.

For years, professional tennis, especially men’s tennis, had an air of predictability.

Of late, everyone was chasing Novak Djokovic, and just as it was last year, when he won three Grand Slams, should have won the other and finished the year ranked number one, there was little indication that this year would be anything. different, unless Carlos Alcaraz was willing to assume command.

(Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

On the women’s side, Iga Swiatek was largely unassailable and thought she would be that way for some time.

As for the sport itself, the players complained about the endless schedule and a packed calendar that left them little free time, but the people who ran tennis, the leaders of the Grand Slams and the men’s and women’s circuits, always They raised their arms and said this was how it had to be, now and always.

It took three months for all of that to be thrown out the window, or perhaps leaving it on the shelf is the best metaphor. After all, there is still time for Djokovic to be Djokovic again, for Swiatek to win with the level of consistency that saw her achieve 37 consecutive victories not long ago, and for all plans to reshape the sport to fail like occasional efforts. . From the past.

And yet, in the first turn of the 2024 tennis season, as the game transitions from the hard courts of Australia, the Middle East and North America, which dominate the first quarter of the year, to the organic surfaces of Europe for spring and early summer, mystery has become the narrative, and never more so than at the Miami Open over the past two weeks.

If, last September, you had on your bingo card Sinner becoming the world’s dominant player and Danielle Collins, an American ranked 53rd in the world, winning a major title, then fair play to you. Not many of us did, but that’s how the first quarter of the season goes: a world of surprises and chaos where what recently seemed so unlikely becomes more likely with each passing week.

Djokovic has not won any tournament all year and did not even reach the final of the Australian Open, which he has won 10 times and, therefore, with little resistance in recent years. Last week he fired his former coach, Goran Ivanisevic, who had helped him win a dozen Grand Slams in recent years. Djokovic, who has resigned from several other long-time members of his team in the past six months, said he does not know when or if he will name a new coach. Maybe he’ll fly solo for a while.

His heir apparent, Alcaraz, showed flashes of his former magical self at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells in California during the first half of the so-called Sunshine Double that concluded in Miami last weekend. But a player seemingly so full of joy in his rise to the top of the sport said he has been struggling for months to find those emotions in practices and in games. Actually.

Did you think that Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, just 25 years old and once elected to take charge of the game, could emerge from 2023 healthy and ready to fulfill his promise? Not so much.

Tsitsipas, so dedicated to tennis for so long, has been balancing his preparations with some of the chaos outside his former world. He has been in love with women’s tennis star Paula Badosa since the middle of last year. He dropped out of the top 10 in February and hopes for a change on the European clay he loves so much.

Swiatek has been overwhelming in some stretches and eminently beatable in others. Swiatek’s list of chasers this season includes Linda Noskova of the Czech Republic and two Russians, Anna Kalinskaya and Ekaterina Alexandrova. Only Alexandrova is in the top 20.

(Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The most likely candidate to overtake Swiatek is Aryna Sabalenka, who briefly replaced her at No. 1 last fall, but is 3-3 since winning the Australian Open and is now dealing with a personal tragedy.

Two weeks ago, a recent boyfriend, Konstantin Koltsov, a former hockey player and his partner for much of the past three years, was found dead in what Miami police ruled an apparent suicide. Sabalenka played in the Miami Open just days after Koltsov’s death, losing his second match, but has not spoken publicly other than posting a brief statement on social media.

“Konstantin’s death is an unthinkable tragedy and although we are no longer together, my heart is broken,” Sabalenka wrote. “Please respect my privacy and that of his family during this difficult time.”

He has been practicing since his loss, trying to get back to something close to normal, but his state of mind when the clay court season begins this month is anyone’s guess. Sabalenka, 25, lost his father when he was 19.

(Robert Prange/Getty Images)

As for the game itself, there’s a corporate civil war at hand, with the Grand Slams trying to replace the current 11-month round-robin season with a premium tour that includes only its own tournaments and the other 10 events. tournament mains. the calendar, like the Sunshine Double, and the endings of each tour. Only the top 100 or so qualify.

The rest of the tennis would be relegated to a qualifying tour. The other men’s and women’s tours, the ATP and WTA, hate that concept, as it robs them of much of their relevance. Its leaders are trying to strengthen a partnership with Saudi Arabia that would greatly improve the status quo that dozens of players despise, and add another tournament in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

That circuit has players compete in the sport’s longest season for a fraction of the money golfers and other athletes earn. They have given the leaders of their new association, the Association of Tennis Professionals, a mandate to “burn the boats,” and sooner rather than later. It is likely that more meetings will be held in Madrid at the end of the month to analyze all this.

Through all the uncertainty, Sinner has strangely become the constant.

Four tournaments, three titles, one semifinal and only one defeat: against Alcaraz, the eventual champion in Indian Wells. Nothing bad.

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

He felt he had turned a corner at the end of last season, when he beat Djokovic twice and led Italy to the Davis Cup final victory, but he didn’t envision winning with the clinical efficiency he has been doing this season. He has a quality that, in the most technical tennis term, is banana. “I certainly didn’t expect this,” he said.

There’s a seductive cruelty to the way Sinner hits people these days.

At one point, an opponent is digging in, exchanging service games, recovering back and forth. Then all it takes is a volleyball jumping off the racket a little too high, or maybe getting lazy with a forehand for a split second, not moving your feet and jumping back without much speed. .

Suddenly, this year, that’s all the opportunity Sinner needs to strike out and never look back.

He runs onto that short volley and hits it across the court. That soft ball that lands more than a few feet inside the baseline allows you to take control of the play. A game goes from par to 15-40 in an instant.

He then launches into blocking a 130mph serve towards the feet, sending whoever is coming, an in-form Dimitrov or whoever else, backing away and thinking they have to hit a miracle shot just to stay even, which in a way do. And then they do the opposite.

In the end, they are hitting the back wall, as Dimitrov did at the end of the second set on Sunday to seal their fate.

“You can see how focused he is now, how determined he is,” Dimitrov said of Sinner. “Can he play better? I don’t know.”

Darren Cahill, one of Sinner’s trainers, says he absolutely can do it.

Both he and Sinner said this streak of success is rooted in all the strength and endurance training Sinner has done over the past two years with Umberto Ferrara, his physical trainer. It has allowed him to increase the speed on his swings and his serve, and play those long points that have him weaving up and back and across the court, for 20 and 30 shots, and then get his heart rate back. down for the next 30 seconds so he can play another one.

Cahill has watched and coached some of the sport’s best players over the past 25 years: Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic. He didn’t want to start comparing Sinner’s achievements with theirs, “but the level is there,” he said Sunday night.

What comes next? Probably a little more chaos.

Unlike so many Italians before him, Sinner is not at his best on clay. On Sunday night, with a shiny crystal trophy in front of him, he was already talking about preparing for his first clay tournament, in Monte Carlo, Monaco, the southern French principality where he lives.

Training will begin Thursday, he said, with his first game a few days later. Maybe you now have the lungs to endure those long physical rallies and matches on the dirt, or maybe you don’t. “I usually have a hard time there,” he said.

Perhaps clay will slow him down, leaving the door open for Djokovic and Alcaraz to resurface. Nadal, who has barely played in the last year and a half, is also on the prowl, recovering from hip surgery and a subsequent muscle tear in that same area and preparing, at almost 38 years old, on the red clay where he has been for a long time. almost untouchable time.

And wouldn’t that be the kind of chaos that has become the order of the day?

Or would that be a return to order?

In 2024, nothing in tennis is so clear.

(Top photo: Frey/TPN/Getty Images)