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Sinner, the Pope and the rise of Italian tennis

Sinner's Australian Open win was another boost to Italian tennis, following victory in the Davis Cup
Sinner's Australian Open win was another boost to Italian tennis, following victory in the Davis Cup

Jannik Sinner’s comeback win over Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final last weekend enraptured Italy. And there are few surer signs than Pope Francis commenting on the national triumph.

“Today we have to congratulate the Italians because yesterday they won in Australia, so we congratulate them, too,” the pontiff told a crowd in Spain on Monday.

Sinner’s Grand Slam win was the first for Italy in nearly half a century, since Adriano Panatta won at Roland Garros in 1976. In the same year, Italy won the Davis Cup.

History has almost repeated itself. Italy lifted the Davis Cup in Malaga two months ago, when 22-year-olds Sinner and Matteo Arnaldi beat Alexei Popyrin and Alex de Minaur of Australia, pointing to a promising future ahead.

Italy’s current tennis success is not based on one or two stars. There are now five Italian players in the world top 100 for both of the women’s WTA and men’s ATP rankings.

Sinner is at fourth, whereas Arnaldi is at 38th. Lorenzo Musetti, who is just 21 years old, ranks at 26th following an impressive run in the last 16 of last year’s French Open. The highest ranked women’s player is Jasmine Paolini, who is currently placed at 24th.

This wave of young Italian players competing at international events looks likely to continue. The Italian Tennis and Padel Federation (FITP) has sought to make tennis more accessible.

A case in point is its channel SuperTennis, which streams matches and other content for people to watch free of charge. Last year FITP confirmed that it had secured the rights to show the US Open, adding to its coverage of Wimbledon, the Davis Cup and other WTA and ATP Tour events.

The country also benefits from the Piatti Tennis Centre in north-west Italy. High-performance training is led by tennis coach Riccardo Piatti, who counts Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova among his former students.

Sinner moved to the centre at the age of 12 when the junior skiing champion abandoned a promising career on the slopes to focus on tennis. He parted ways with Piatti in February last year to be mentored by Australian Darren Cahill, best known for coaching Andre Agassi.

Sinner is the first Italian tennis Grand Slam champion in almost half a century
Sinner is the first Italian tennis Grand Slam champion in almost half a century

The Italians’ takeover of tennis extends to management, with former champion Andrea Gaudenzi becoming ATP chairman in January 2020. He has presided over changes in funding models, with reports suggesting that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund are looking to create new tournaments.

The season-ending ATP finals also moved to Turin in 2021 following more than a decade in London, bringing further attention to tennis in the country.

The matches showed that tennis viewing figures are on the rise. Sinner’s final against Djokovic at the 2023 ATP Finals drew 6.7m viewers in Italy, a national record for a tennis broadcast.

Similarly, his Grand Slam breakthrough last weekend generated a 300 per cent increase in Italy audience for rights holder Eurosport. No word yet, however, on whether the Pope tuned in.