ATP Next Gen Finals proving to be a fast track to stardom

Jannik Sinner went from the ski slopes to the tennis courts, and it has paid off with the Next Gen Finals championship. MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

Less than 24 hours before Novak Djokovic strolled onto the floor of London's 02 Arena on Sunday morning to resume his quest to regain the top ranking at the ATP Finals, an Italian youngster established himself as a player who might soon follow in the Serbian star's outsized footprints.

Jannik Sinner, a lean 6-foot-2 18-year-old from a ski town deep in the Italian Dolomites, flew over every mogul in his path to grab the title at the 21-and-under ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan. In the championship match. Sinner crushed No. 18-ranked Alex de Minaur -- himself a prodigy who has already won three ATP titles and is presently ranked No. 18.

The score in the short-set format was 4-2, 4-1, 4-2. Sinner's first words to his compatriots after he overwhelmed De Minaur: "I have no words."

Others were nothing less than loquacious about him. Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, who coached Roger Federer through some of the Swiss icon's best years, called Sinner's performance "absolutely breathtaking, an astounding win against one of the best defenders on the tour."

The master class in attacking tennis was all the more impressive because Sinner, the lowest seed in the eight-man field, set forth this year as a 17-year-old ranked outside the top 500. He didn't pick up his first ATP Tour win (that's match, not tournament) until April. But by mid-October in Antwerp, he was able to knock off three top 100 players including top-10 veteran Gael Monfils and Sinner's Next Gen rival, Frances Tiafoe. To date, Sinner has played just 16 ATP Tour matches with a record of 7-9.

Skeptics may complain that almost everything about this event is an affront to tennis as we know it and therefore unreliable. The short-sets format (if the no-ad games reach 4-all, a tiebreaker decides matters), the players who choose to take advantage of the offer look like junior air-traffic controllers as they sit on changeovers, communicating with their coaches via headset. Hawkeye is live. Unlike the big dogs of the ATP Tour, the Next Gen players are obliged to retrieve their own towels from a special box on the court.

But don't be fooled by the bells and whistles or the ATP marketing hype. This event has evolved into an accurate, intriguing predictor of success on the main tour. It has provided a fast track to stardom for more than a half-dozen pros seeming destined to push the aging Big Four over the edge into retirement. Some, like Sinner, flew into Milan low on the radar.

The complaint that the short-sets scoring system turns these matches into slam-bang shootouts won by the hotter hand, not necessarily the better player, is dispelled by history.

The past two winners in Milan, Stefanos Tsitsipas (2018) and Hyeon Chung (2017), went on to reach the Australian quarterfinals just two months later. Tsitsipas was still eligible to play in Milan this year but qualified for the big show in London thanks to his gaudy No. 6 ranking. Chung, still just 23, reached as high as No. 19 shortly after winning in Milan, but he's since been derailed by injuries and is currently on the comeback road.

Among those who reached at least the semifinals in Milan: the two ATP sensations of this summer, US Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev and No. 8 Matteo Berrettini. Then there's No. 14 Denis Shapovalov and more, including Frances Tiafoe. An alternate in 2017 (he declined to attend) and a competitor last year, Tiafoe was seeded No. 2. He was beaten in the semifinal by De Minaur. He made an eloquent case for the event when he met with the media in Milan.

"They [the Next Gen contenders] have something to strive for, rather than just trying to, you know, loosey-goosey around the tour," Tiafoe said. He added that creating a year-end final for young players, mirroring the annual championships of the ATP and WTA, inspires the players. So does "putting them on a pedestal and making them feel known," something a young pro might not experience unless he made a deep run at a major or Masters Series event.

Skeptics may decry the short-sets format, but there isn't enough comparative data to say it would produce significantly different rankings. The matches are significantly shorter, which always favors the underdog. This year's best-of-five final was settled in a blazing hour and five minutes, an anomaly even for this event, thanks partly to Sinner's hyper-aggressive power game. The plethora of critical points in no-ad scoring favors those who handle pressure better, and/or have more potent weapons.

Invariably, that points to the better, calmer, more versatile players.

"I feel like with the shorter format, there is more crucial points," De Minaur said. "Anything can happen. And we have seen that sudden-death points (any game that goes to deuce is decided by the next point) can completely change a match."

The streamlined sets (a tiebreaker decides the set at 4-all) also make it much more difficult to recover from a break of serve. Lose serve once and you can almost kiss the set goodbye. It's still hard to imagine that the fortunes of a Federer or Rafael Nadal would be significantly different if the tour adopted the no-frills format.

Sinner erased all nine break points he faced in the final, and he won five of the seven deciding points. He received accolades for his composure, as well as his willingness to crack warp-speed winners and rocketing serves that left De Minaur precious little to defend against in the way of rallies.

"The amount of firepower he has is up there with anyone out there on tour," De Minaur said. "It's pretty amazing to see and to witness, because it doesn't come very often."

De Minaur would not blame the final result on either the format or the quick court speed. The Australian ex-prodigy said after losing: "It's no use to go out here and anything that doesn't go your way start complaining about it. It's just another tennis match for me, different conditions, but something you've got to get used to."

Sinner was ranked No. 2 in his age group as a skier at an early age, but he was plucked right out of the chairlift by well-known Italian coach Riccardo Piatti, who also coaches Borna Coric and has worked with Djokovic.

"He (Sinner) can be one of the best in the world," Piatti recently told the ATP media team. "He's a good server and returner. When he gets a chance to attack an opponent, he takes it. He's not someone waiting for the other to make a mistake."

Spending the bulk of the year on the Challenger Tour (or lower in the minors), Sinner compiled an overall combined record of 56-23 this year, with four titles in five finals (excluding the Next Gen event, which is officially classified as an exhibition due to its departure from the main-tour format). Sinner's prize money of $372,000 is more than he had earned up to this point in his entire career.

Once again, the Next Gen Finals have provided a promising young player with a springboard into the big leagues as well as the public consciousness. It's likely to accelerate his development, and it's a boon to his confidence. He looks like a legitimate candidate to succeed Djokovic and his Big Four peers.

But Sinner is taking it one step at a time. He's announced that he's keeping his commitment to play the Ortisei Challenger event near his hometown this week. Why not? He's earned the right to have some fun.