Point/Counterpoint: I Am Not Jannik Sinner

Jannik Sinner is the hottest player on the men’s tour at the moment, but there remain some intriguing questions about his identity. Here, Defector tennis bureau chief Giri Nathan and correspondent Patrick Redford share their divergent opinions on this matter.

Point: I Am Not Jannik Sinner, By Patrick Redford

Tuesday night’s primetime matchup in the main stadium at Indian Wells was mouth-watering: The most recent men’s major winner, Jannik Sinner, against the swaggiest if not the best American in the field, Ben Shelton. As Shelton was also one of the last players to beat Sinner, and as the Indian Wells crowd has really gotten behind American players—Jess Pegula and Coco Gauff’s doubles matches in the smaller stadium drew huge crowds—this figured to be a banger. And, briefly, it was. Shelton rips serves like his body is purpose-assembled for it—the biggest pop from the crowd of the evening was when he reached 148 mph on a first-serve fault, causing everyone to giggle and whisper as if they’d seen a celebrity. Sinner, for his part, is playing the most beautiful, harmonious tennis on the tour right now.

Both fellas got support from the crowd, with Shelton regularly being exhorted to “hit 150” in between getting brief “Go Gators!” and “SEC!” chants, as if the well-heeled Palm Springs crowd had just found out that there’s another one of those besides the Securities and Exchange Commission. Shelton doesn’t just go for power, he can throw in slice serves, kick serves, everything. He really had Sinner moving out there.

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The primary aspect of Sinner’s game I was excited for was aural; Giri introduced him to the Defector audience three years ago by first noting that the ball sounds different coming off his racket. And it’s true: There’s a suddenness to the sound, a tinkly pop that seems to create its own echo. Everyone else’s strokes are muffled by comparison; it’s as if their contact with the ball lasts longer and is more disruptive than Sinner’s purer redirections. His shots are in a slightly higher key and piercingly direct, tennis as Dolby-mediated concert experience rather than transmitted through old earpods. The first set was close, and then Sinner totally got a read on Shelton’s serve and pieced him up in an uneventful 6-1 second set.

All very good, but none of that is why we are here today. I have harbored a lifelong fear of doppelgängers, an irrational yet powerful sensation I have never been able to shake or adequately explain. The resemblance between Sinner and me has been noted in these pages before, and while our loadouts are different these days—I have a mustache now and more mass, he has TikTok-poofy hair and different teeth—he’s probably the most similar-looking sportsperson to me operating these days. We are both redheaded, lanky, 6-foot-2, freckled guys with plus wingspans. Thankfully, he has brown eyes and I have green.

All of which is to say that I experienced a brief, genuine moment of unsettlement when we first walked into the stadium and sat down 15 or so rows above Sinner as he served his second game. It was the doppelgänger feeling. I didn’t think I would feel myself in the bottom of the uncanny valley, yet there I was, watching this Italian genius do beautiful tennis stuff while feeling briefly nauseous, like the faintest hint of how I feel when I have to give blood. I thought I wouldn’t be unnerved, since we do look different enough that nobody would actually mistake us for each other, and also because I am aware that I am myself. But the irrationality of this phobia is such that I couldn’t talk myself out of that instant reaction. It passed quickly, and when we attended his press conference later, where he would generously hold court for minutes when asked banal or irrelevant questions, I’d fully gotten over it. But it was an odd sensation. Not that anyone would be meaningfully confused, but I want it on record: I am not Jannik Sinner.


Counterpoint: Patrick Redford Is Jannik Sinner, by Giri Nathan

The fourth-round matchup between Jannik Sinner and Ben Shelton was the most appetizing in the men’s draw at Indian Wells so far. Shelton, a big eager mound of a server, is one of just two players to have beaten Sinner since October, with the other being Novak Djokovic. The Italian has otherwise enjoyed a world-eating 35-2 run that pushed him to the No. 3 ranking. It’s netted him titles in Beijing, at the Davis Cup, at the Australian Open, and Rotterdam. During this run he has beaten the other best players in the world: Djokovic twice, Daniil Medvedev twice, Carlos Alcaraz once. That three-set loss to Shelton in Shanghai last fall was a rare and jarring blip in what has otherwise been an unbroken span of excellence. Many in the packed stadium on Wednesday wondered whether the young American could again dispel that Sinner magic while drawing on the energies of a sympathetic crowd. I, on the other hand, simply wondered how my Bay Area colleague had found the time to travel on the ATP Tour while also posting frequently to Defector.com.

The first set delivered exactly the clattering action that the optimists envisioned. Shelton throws down 140 mph bombs that send a whole stadium into bleating disbelief. Even his faults become moments of emotional communion for thousands. Sinner is a brilliant returner who’s able to put his racket on more Shelton serves than most, so the American rarely escaped with a stress-free hold. More often than I anticipated, the two fell into deep baseline rallies, exchanging what were, by some margin, the hardest and most sonically disorienting groundstrokes we’ve seen struck this week.

In most matchups Sinner can draw quiet confidence from the fact that he hits a bigger ball from the baseline, but Shelton is way too bold a risk-taker and too dynamic an athlete to give up easy leverage in those exchanges. He also picked his spots wisely to escape baseline jail and cut off volleys at the net. The two traded breaks of serve and hurtled toward a tiebreak. I was so locked in during this set that I did not look to my left at any point. As such I can neither confirm nor deny whether the redheaded man hitting blistering forehand passes also had nuanced feelings about Domantas Sabonis. There was no way to know, and too much thrilling tennis to watch to investigate further.

From 4-4 in the tiebreak, Sinner strung together 14 of 17 points, taking the opening set and racing out to a 3-0 lead. It was only then, as the tension broke, that I began to resent the man on the court. There were a lot of eyeballs on this match. It didn’t seem like too much to ask to put a discreet Defector patch on his shirt or hat, though I suppose I understand if that would create some conflict with bigger-name sponsors. But what happened to dancing with the one that brought you? And provides you lovely benefits and co-ownership?

The redheaded man on court was by then wresting control of the match, snagging a double break. Shelton looked unsure of his footing on two occasions when recovering to his left, and was left staring at his own feet in frustration after both errors. The sting on his lefty forehand was fading. The redheaded man was returning well, getting on top of that lethal kick serve. Shelton fretted and never found a way back into match. While I knew Patrick was really into climbing, it was unclear to me how that would have unlocked so much hip mobility and explosive lateral movement.

After an unreturnable 128 mph body serve sealed a 7-6(4), 6-1 victory, my focus lapsed, and I acknowledged the presence of a familiar figure beside me. My convictions were tested: It was possible to capture a photograph containing both Patrick and Jannik. I am not ruling out the possibility that this was a sophisticated trompe l’oeil, organized by the powers that be, to derail or merely taunt a dogged truth-seeker. Nor can I say for sure whether similar machinations explain the hologrammatic “man” delivering calm answers at the press conference that Patrick and I subsequently attended together. If someone at that presser had passed a hand through the lifelike projection of that man, or just asked that man a question about Davion Mitchell’s place in the Kings rotation, we might have had dispositive evidence.

But we ran out of time. The player known to the public as Jannik Sinner left the room to continue yet another big-title hunt. The mustachioed writer named Patrick followed me as I purchased a mediocre root beer float. I swear that I detected a new note of menace in his friendship. If I lose my life chasing down this mystery, I entrust the readers of Defector to continue my search.

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