Djokovic heaps praise on 'talented' Sinner

 - Reem Abulleil

The world No.1 enjoyed a winning start in Monte-Carlo in his first meeting with the Italian teenager

Sinner Djokovic ©Corinne Dubreuil /FFT

Everything is different in tennis – and the world – these days, but in Novak Djokovic land, it’s still business as usual, as the Serb showed little to no signs of rust in his opening round victory over an in-form Jannik Sinner in Monte-Carlo on Wednesday.

For the sixth time in his career, Djokovic has managed to start a season with a clean 10-0 win-loss record in singles, and despite this being his first appearance since the Australian Open in February, the world No.1 was sharp and, at times, ruthless during his 6-4, 6-2 dismissal of Sinner.

Djokovic was facing the 19-year-old Italian for the first time in a competitive match but he was well aware of the threat Sinner posed, having practiced with him multiple times in the past and having witnessed the rapid progress the young teen has made over the past eight months.

While Sinner is still getting started, there are already several parallels that can be drawn between him and Djokovic.

Sinner is coached by Riccardo Piatti, who worked with Djokovic when the Serb was at a similar age to his current charge.

It is hard to mention a stat or a new milestone hit by Sinner without referring to Djokovic. When Sinner reached the quarter-finals on his Roland-Garros debut last October, he became the youngest man to make it that far on Parisian clay since Djokovic in 2006.

When Sinner picked up a second career ATP title at the start of this season in Melbourne, he became the youngest two-time champion on the men’s tour since Djokovic in 2006.

‘He’s the present of our sport’

Djokovic on Sunday said Sinner “has proven that he is the future of our sport” before quickly correcting himself by adding: “He’s actually the present of our sport, playing finals in Masters already, he’s making for himself big strides in professional tennis.”

Indeed, Sinner arrived to Monte-Carlo at a career-high ranking of 22 in the world after reaching the final of the Masters 1000 event in Miami earlier this month, and he is an impressive 15-6 win-loss so far this season.

“He’s an all-round player, he hits the ball in the sweet spot on any surface really and he’s got a lot of talent,” said Djokovic.

“I think what impresses me the most is his professionalism, his dedication to the everyday routines that he has to endure in order to play at such high level. I think this is why the consistency of his results is there.

“For a young player like this, what we normally would see and expect is he got a couple of good weeks here and there, but the consistency is not there until the young player matures.

“With him it's different. He really has a good mindset. He seems more mature for his age than the rest of the guys with the way he's playing and training. He's got a good tempo. From the baseline he makes the other guy feel he's got to run a lot.”

Jannik Sinner Monte-Carlo 2021©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Lessons learned for Jannik

It is high praise, especially coming from an 18-time Grand Slam champion like Djokovic, but Sinner has already shown that he is unfazed by attention and expectations, and is instead solely focused on his own progress.

The match on Wednesday was closer than the scoreline may suggest. Sinner was the one who broke serve first and he also pegged Djokovic back as the top seed was serving for the opening set before conceding it the next game.

The teenager could have done better on his own serve (won just 48 per cent of his first-serve points) and he committed 28 unforced errors, but walked away from the match already thinking about the lessons learned and what he needs to work on.

“Well, first you have to speak with the team. It's not that I know everything,” Sinner told reporters with a laugh.  

“Obviously what I see is that Novak is defending better than me when he's coming in the run. We have to learn there. We have to serve a little bit better.

“I think the biggest part where I have to learn, but I knew already, is to understand the right situations in every match, to don't go too much, don't go too slow, all the rest. It's trying to understand the situation. That's what I'm trying to do.”

Djokovic described his own performance as “solid” and admits drawing Sinner for his first match was always going to be a tricky test.

Novak Djokovic Monte-Carlo 2021©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Evans next

The two-time Monte-Carlo champion next takes on Britain’s Dan Evans, who ousted recent Miami champion Hubert Hurkacz.

“I have to be satisfied considering I think I had a tough draw for the first round, playing Sinner, who is in form, who is striking the ball very well. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I walked into the court with the right intensity, right focus,” said Djokovic.

Meanwhile, 11-time champion Rafael Nadal also enjoyed a winning return to the tour with a smooth 6-1, 6-2 success over Argentinean qualifier Federico Delbonis.

Andrey Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas were other high seeds to secure passage to the third round on Wednesday.