Wilander: I think Jannik will be No.1 for a long time

Jannik Sinner, Roland-Garros 2024, Simple Messieurs, 1/4 de Finale©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

It is the mark of a great champion’s climb to the pinnacle and a measure of their ability to prolong their stay: maintaining the status quo is never enough.

Three-time Roland-Garros champion Mats Wilander, who ended his career with seven Grand Slam singles titles and 20 weeks as the world’s best, tipped his hat to Jannik Sinner, who on Tuesday became the first Italian to lock down the No.1 spot.

The Swede knows what it takes after his ascent to the top spot on the back of a seventh major trophy at Flushing Meadows in 1988.

Beyond the points on paper, Wilander deemed the 22-year-old a worthy successor as the world’s best, a badge of honour Sinner has earned given his achievements in the past six months, including the Australian Open and hard-court titles in Rotterdam and Miami.

It sets a benchmark for which his rivals will measure their own success in the challenge to claim bragging rights.

“He's won a Grand Slam, so he's a great No.1. He's won Davis Cup, so it's well deserved,” Wilander said. “You have to feel like you're the best player for a consistent period of time and is Sinner the best player in the world in a consistent period of time, like the last six months? Most probably… I think Jannik will be No.1 for a long time.

Jannik Sinner, quarter-final, Roland-Garros 2024©️Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“I'm saying he'll be long-term No.1, but not in a row. I think [he and Carlos Alcaraz] will trade off quite a bit. I think Alcaraz seems to me like when he's healthy and really, really playing he might be just a little bit better than Jannik at the moment, but if he's not then I think Jannik is better because he's more consistent.

“It's the Roger and Rafa sort of thing... It's so healthy to have those two, absolutely brilliant to have those two leading the game from the younger generation.”

Ahead of his fifth campaign in Paris, Sinner was asked to reflect on Rafael Nadal’s legacy at the clay-court major, the site of two of their three encounters, which the Spaniard won, including the Italian’s first Slam quarter-final four years ago.

Sinner said his straight-sets loss on Court Philippe-Chatrier in 2020 merely served as a reminder of how wide the gap was between him and the leading protagonists.

“These kind of matches when you play against the best players in the world, it's a special feeling,” Sinner said. “In the beginning, you know, you're surprised, because you are not used to it, playing against the best. But this is what I am searching every week where I want to measure myself against the best players in the world. Then you have good feedback where you have to improve.

“I think it's all about trying to understand what makes you a better player, not only tennis-wise but also physically and mentally.”

Wilander already owned two Grand Slam trophies when he ran into home hope Yannick Noah as defending champion in the 1983 final in Paris.

A straight-sets defeat was just the wake-up call he needed to become a better player and a step in the right direction towards his ranking ascent.

“You have to start improving, not just maintaining,” he said. “That was a big thing that you could still come to the net on clay, you could hit slice backhands, you could serve-volley, you have to do all those things otherwise the game has kind of passed you by and that day it changed it.”

Under the guidance of Darren Cahill and Simone Vagnozzi, Sinner and his team left nothing to chance, an attitude that Wilander said laid the foundation for a prolonged stay at No.1.

“I think what he's doing, which is learning to expand his variety because you see in the last match he hit, it's just a couple of different shots… those little nuances that we didn't see last year that he's doing now, that he's willing to do and doing very successfully,” Wilander said. “Just the way he turned around the Australian Open [final], he was gone and then he changed… Very smart, very mellow.”