ROME — Jannik Sinner and Riccardo Piatti seemed destined to achieve tennis greatness together.
Sinner, the red-haired ball-striking phenomenon from the German-speaking region of northern Italy, had moved to Piatti’s academy on the Italian Riviera at the age of 13 and made a meteoric rise into the top 10 of the rankings.
Piatti, the veteran coach who had previously worked with the likes of Ivan Ljubicic, Richard Gasquet and Novak Djokovic, appeared like he would finally guide one of his pupils to a Grand Slam title.
Sinner won four titles last year, made the final of the Miami Open and reached a career-high ranking of No. 9 shortly after his 20th birthday.
Then, suddenly, in February – shortly after a run to the Australian Open quarterfinals – Sinner dropped his mentor and hired the relatively inexperienced Simone Vagnozzi as his new coach.
“Jannik wants to reach No. 1 and he wants a lot more tools,” Filippo Volandri, Italy’s Davis Cup captain, told The Associated Press as the Italian Open got underway. “He wants different tools from the ones he’s had his entire life.
“He saw that he wasn’t winning against the best in the world and he understood that to take that next step he needs to add something to his game.”
Like many in Italian tennis, Volandri was surprised by the move.
“Yes, for the timing of it,” Volandri said.
Sinner has not really explained the reasons for the split.
“I won’t forget the seven years with Riccardo and where he took me. But I needed a change,” Sinner said shortly after he made that change. “Not everyone would have had the courage to make a decision like mine.”
Under Vagnozzi, Sinner has struggled to find consistency due to a series of physical problems after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Sinner withdrew before his Round-of-16 match at Indian Wells against Nick Kyrgios due to a stomach problem then retired midway through his Miami Open quarterfinal against Francisco Cerundolo due to blisters on his feet, which also affected him during the Monte Carlo Masters.
“I have a goal in mind and it requires a lot of sacrifices and you’ve got to get through some tough times,” Sinner said. “When you’re 15th or 10th in the rankings, every detail can make a difference.”
Most recently at the Madrid Open, Sinner was routed 6-1, 6-2 by Felix Auger-Aliassime.
“It’s been complicated,” Vagnozzi said. “He hasn’t had much luck lately.”
Vagnozzi, a 38-year-old former player who reached a career-high ranking of No. 161, was previously known for coaching Marco Cecchinato to the French Open semifinals in 2018.
“Riccardo is the most experienced coach in Italy,” Vagnozzi said. “I certainly can’t be compared to him.”
Another factor in Sinner’s change may have been that the rapidly rising 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz has replaced him as The Next Big Thing in tennis.
Whatever the reasons for the change, Sinner is fully on board with his new coach.
“It’s definitely a different method,” Sinner said. “I can do more things on the court. The important thing is not to lose who I am: A player that pushes and hits hard. But that’s not all that tennis is about. Tennis is about understanding the moments during matches.
“We’re working on transforming my game into even more of an aggressive approach where I can get to the net more. I still have big margins for improvement.”
One area where Sinner already seems improved is in the resilience department. He has won four times this year after saving match points.
“Jannik is the best in the world inside his comfort zone. But he still needs to add components to his game in other parts of the court,” said Corrado Barazzutti, Italy’s former Davis Cup captain.
At the Foro Italico, the 10th-seeded Sinner opens against 44th-ranked Pedro Martinez.
With Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini and Lorenzo Musetti both out injured, Sinner is the poster-boy for his home tournament. Lorenzo Sonego, who made a run to the semifinals last year, has also struggled lately.
The last Italian man to raise the trophy at the Foro Italico was Adriano Panatta back in 1976.
“The important thing is to forget what’s happened recently,” Sinner said, “and to embrace the pressure.”
Four first-round matches opened play at the Italian Open.
Filip Krajinovic defeated Frances Tiafoe 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4); Cristian Garin beat local wild card Francesco Passaro 6-3, 6-2; 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic eliminated Matteo Arnaldi, another wild card, 6-1, 6-4; and 2021 Australian Open semifinalist Aslan Karatsev rallied past Lloyd Harris 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7).
Karatsev next faces Djokovic, while Garin will play Alcaraz.