FLASHBACK: Sinner finishes runner-up at this year's Miami Open

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“You have to be focused on what you can get out of these important moments.”

On paper, this philosophy reads like a line from Rafael Nadal’s ream of go to quotes. It’s not—though the likeness makes sense once you dig deeper.

Jannik Sinner rapidly turned heads by the end of 2019. The Italian, who opted out of the junior scene in favor of consistent reps at ITF Futures events, skyrocketed from No. 553 in January to a 78th-ranked finish. The following season, in his French Open debut, Sinner reached the quarterfinals.

Nadal would end the teenager’s run—who else?—but whether it was his disciplined poise, competitive nature or spectacular weight of shot, everything Sinner showed Rafa led him to procure considerably more than he bargained for out of a defeat.

Ahead of this year’s Australian swing, players not in hard quarantine paired up with a peer for a hitting partner. Through consultation with his team, Nadal chose Sinner, who ended 2020 by lifting his first ATP trophy in Sofia. For this passionate student of the game—still yet to play a full season on tour—exclusive time with Nadal was an opportunity he milked for every ounce.

“I think it was one of the best experiences of my life that nobody can take away from me,” Sinner shared with TENNIS.com in Miami. “Playing matches, especially when you’re young, against the best guys in the world is a great test to see where you are and where you can improve. I feel very lucky that I could practice with Rafa for two weeks in Adelaide.”

Whatever the two collaborated on showed up immediately for Sinner. At a tune-up event in Melbourne, he won two matches in one day to reach the semis; saved a match point to edge Karen Khachanov 24 hours later; and ended up winning it all, becoming the youngest ATP player to earn consecutive titles since—wait for it—a 19-year-old Nadal, in 2005.

“He’s very humble, a very great person,” Sinner says of Nadal, who knocked out the teen for the second straight year at Roland Garros.

“He’s very humble, a very great person,” Sinner says of Nadal, who knocked out the teen for the second straight year at Roland Garros.

Sinner’s quick turnaround two days later at the Australian Open resulted in a five-set loss to Denis Shapovalov. It was a grueling way to end his trip, but Sinner left Oz with plenty of positives.

“The reason why we came here was to practice with Rafa for two weeks,” he told press. “He can give me many things about how to stay on court with the right mentality, and that’s the biggest lesson.”

Like many, former No. 1 Andy Roddick welcomes what Sinner brings to the table. His clean striking on both wings is a formidable quality, and greater consistency should come with time. Pointing to the fact Sinner barely possesses a grown-up body, Roddick highlights two areas he’d like to see ripen. The first: cutting down errors on his “off” days.

“On his backhand side, you’d like to see him be able to check down and keep that ball in play, as opposed to just trying to force the issue over and over,” Roddick says. “But that’s also one of his strengths, so you’d have to work on that really diligently.”

The second region: the serve. If there’s anyone credible enough to comment on the starting point of a rally, and the authority it can hold against the opposition, it’s Roddick.

“What I’d like to see is a little more direction, more of that ‘Sampras tail’ as I call it,” he explains. “You can serve it 111 [m.p.h.] out wide, but if it’s coming straight, it’s pretty easy for the opponent to square up. “But if you have that Pete thing, where it’s 108 out wide—but in the last little bit before it gets to you, it tails away and grinds against your racquet strings—it makes it a lot tougher.”

In Melbourne, Nadal said of Sinner, “I am sure he’s going to finish this year in a high position. I don’t have a doubt.”

Two months later, Sinner contested his first ATP Masters 1000 final at the Miami Open. Two weeks after that, he cracked the Top 20. If Sinner continues to harness Nadal’s methods—and learn from important moments—the San Candido native has every reason to believe he'll soon find himself inside the Top 10 with his Adelaide sparring partner.