Wimbledon favourite Jannik Sinner passes first-round test to set up intriguing clash

Jannik Sinner is an altogether different player from the one who left the All England Club on Friday 14 July, 2023. When the Italian made his exit from Wimbledon after a straight-sets defeat by seven-time champion Novak Djokovic, he was the world No 8 and a grand slam semi-finalist. Fifty weeks on, he entered SW19 as the world No 1, a grand slam winner, and the betting favourite to lift the gentlemen’s singles trophy.

In his Wimbledon campaign last year, there were plenty of positives for the 22-year-old: He had reached the final four of a major for the first time, and there was no shame in losing to a king of Centre Court, no less with a display of great promise – despite the straight-sets scoreline. But where last year there was promise, this year there is pressure.

Such are expectations midway through the most successful year of Sinner’s career. January brought his first slam, as he showed steep progress with a banishing of Djokovic in the semi-finals. If the Serb is a king of Centre Court, he is a deity Down Under, yet Sinner was a non-believer that day. But a final against Daniil Medvedev required enormous reserves of belief, and Sinner plundered them to fight back from two sets down, claiming the trophy.

Then came a semi-final run at the French Open, exhibiting Sinner’s consistency at this level now, and he was only ousted in the match of the tournament: a five-set thriller with fellow prodigy Carlos Alcaraz, the eventual champion. Alcaraz, incidentally, was the eventual champion at Wimbledon 12 months ago. The 21-year-old has admitted to enjoying even the cruelest moments that tennis can offer, so to see another man labelled the favourite for his crown? That’s nothing. The Spaniard will likely grin and shrug at the odds.

Alcaraz in fact navigated a first-round test perfectly on Monday, over on Centre Court, before it was Sinner’s turn on No 1 Court. The Italian was paired with 32-year-old Yannick Hanfmann, the world No 45 from Germany, a man unburdened by the expectations across the net. And Hanfmann played with that freedom early on, while Sinner required time to strip the metaphorical shackles.

Jannik Sinner moved well on the grass and improvised impressively at times (Getty Images)
Jannik Sinner moved well on the grass and improvised impressively at times (Getty Images)

The world No 1 tried to play with positivity, unwinding his long levers for aggressive forehands, but there were early inconsistencies. When things were working, Sinner was puppeteering Hanfmann with groundstrokes, but the 22-year-old’s movement was interrogated here, as the German kept his forehands low and frequently drew Sinner to the net.

Sinner initially coped well with Hanfmann’s line of questioning, striding up and down the manicured turf like an animated hero from a Disney film, while his reflexes and imagination were also tested at times. In one moment, Sinner demonstrated both, meeting a Hanfmann smash with a cushioned, volleyed winner up the line.

On this surface, deft movement and improvisation can be key, so consider those boxes ticked by Sinner. Regardless of surface, though, consistency is also key. That is where Sinner faltered.

Still, he navigated deuces on his serve and kept grinding, while Hanfmann began to come up short on ground shots, struggling to beat the net. Ultimately, the German was broken for 4-2 in the first set, as Sinner whipped a forehand across Hanfmann to create some daylight between them – while the skies grew greyer overhead.

Yannick Hanfmann surged into a shock 4-0 lead in the third set (Getty Images)
Yannick Hanfmann surged into a shock 4-0 lead in the third set (Getty Images)

There was the odd drop of rain and even a gentle breeze, but there was nothing gentle in how Sinner punctuated his ownership of the next game. Bearing down on Hanfmann, he stabbed home a backhand volley for a 5-2 lead. Hanfmann was stubborn enough to extend the set by a game, but that was all – for now.

Still, Hanfmann stayed stubborn. Early in the second set, he lured Sinner to the net before beating him with a topspin lob. The world No 1 applauded before it had even touched the turf. But Sinner was just that, is just that: the world No 1. So while Hanfmann stayed stubborn, Sinner was not content to stay anywhere, instead keen to pull ahead.

The Italian did not surge ahead, mind, in the way one might have expected after he had banked the first set. But just frequently enough, his forehands were too much to handle. And so came the breaks. His serves were often too much to handle, as well. And so came the holds. With them came 6-3 6-4.

Yet Sinner’s early inconsistency resurfaced, and so did Hanfmann’s freedom of shotmaking. Sinner slipped early in the third set, and that physical slip gave way to something greater. Suddenly, he was 4-0 down in the third frame, tasked with seeking out another attribute: resilience. It was immediately employed to survive a long, difficult game for 4-2, but Hanfmann was inspired and inventive as he clinched the set 6-3.

Sinner’s title credentials were interrogated by Hanfmann (Getty Images)
Sinner’s title credentials were interrogated by Hanfmann (Getty Images)

Then, he was interrupted, as the roof closed.

The German still impressed once play resumed, but Sinner was reinvigorated. The Italian leapt towards that closed roof to smash home shots, slid across the grass to nudge volleys beyond Hanfmann, and a break at 2-1 was the difference.

The favourite had found some much-needed fluidity, while Hanfmann’s had deserted him. In the end, Sinner sealed victory with a backhand winner, driven down the line. In doing so, he set up a second-round tie with his compatriot Matteo Berrettini – a former finalist at Wimbledon.

That will be an intriguing test, and it may require more from Sinner than he offered on Monday.

In any case, it is so important to peak at the right time during grand slams. Since last year, Sinner has learnt how to do that. He showed as much in Melbourne; now, he will aim to show it in London.