“I cannot say the difference between this year and the last year, because last year I [wasn’t] playing here,” Jannik Sinner said after his 7-5, 6-0, 6-3 win over No. 11 seed David Goffin on Sunday. “For me is the first time. I have nothing to complain about.”
It’s good to be young, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s good to be a rookie, too. On this opening day at Roland Garros, many of Sinner’s older colleagues were frustrated by the freezing fall weather and the slower Wilson balls, both of which are new to the tournament in 2020. But the 19-year-old Italian, who never bothered to play the junior Grand Slams during his speedy ascent to the pros, just went about his business in his usual expressionless way. Goffin may have thought it was a little weird to play under the brand-new roof that now covers Court Philippe Chatrier—this was the first indoor match in the tournament’s history—but why would Sinner? His clean, crisp game looked right at home in the controlled conditions. Showing off Berdychian levels of easy power, he took command at the end of the first set and, pulling the trigger on his down-the-line backhand whenever possible, kept Goffin on a string the rest of the way.
“You have to have a good balance on court, the right speeds,” Sinner said of playing with slow balls in chilly conditions. “Obviously you cannot go that big, because it's not going to help you that much.”
“It’s all a balance game,” Sinner said.
Keeping his balance is something this former competitive skier from the slopes of Northern Italy seems to know how to do. It may have been his first win at Roland Garros, and it may have come over the 11th seed, but Sinner acted as if had been the favorite all along. For some of us, he was. This highly touted young player, with a cool demeanor and icy hand-eye coordination to match, is only 19. But as Chris Clarey of The New York Times wrote on Twitter today, “tennis has been waiting for him.”
Much the same can be said for Sunday’s other rookie winner, Coco Gauff. Unlike Sinner, the 16-year-old American has been to Roland Garros before; she won the girls’ title here in 2018. Like Sinner, Gauff seems as if she’s been around for years, even though she made her celebrated Wimbledon debut less than a year ago. Also like Sinner, Gauff made quick work on Sunday of a veteran high seed—No. 9 Johanna Konta—who was unable to adjust to the conditions and find anything close to her best form.
While Sinner and Gauff are both teenagers, youth is pretty much all they share as players. Where Sinner wins with nonpareil timing and ball-striking, Gauff wins with superior speed and power, an all-consuming competitiveness, and a precociously high tennis IQ. Her service toss needs work—she double-faulted 12 times in her 6-3, 6-3 win over Konta—and she’s prone to pulling off the ball and shanking her forehand, especially on returns. But Gauff can get to just about anything, and she can hit the ball harder than most of her opponents can. Like a lot of players who have recently graduated from the junior ranks, she’s not afraid to radically change paces and spins and do whatever it takes to win a point, no matter how unorthodox. Gauff won several rallies today with her forehand slice, when Konta failed to adjust to the spin and put the ball in the net.
“I know that she likes to play really hard and play the ball into her,” Gauff said of her tactics against Konta. “So coming into the match I already knew I was going to change the pace and everything. I mean, to be honest, I was surprised how good the slice was today.”
Match point—Gauff punches her ticket to the second round:
When Konta drilled her final backhand into the net, Gauff and her parents rejoiced. After a spring spent in lockdown, and an early singles exit at the US Open, they were happy to celebrate her first win at Roland Garros.
“I mean, every match is, like, a great win,” Gauff said. “I don’t really take anything for granted because I’m just happy to be playing. I don’t think winning Slams, winning matches at Slams, is something I’m used to.”
Between them, Sinner and Gauff show us that there are many different ways to win a tennis match. And, keeping with the theme of this year’s French Open, they also show us new ways to win. Sinner’s game is as efficiently powerful as any I can think of, and Gauff has a competitive knack that’s all her own. It’s good to be young. And every often, it’s good to be a rookie.