As of April 26th 2021, there are two teenagers ranked inside the ATP Top 100: Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti. They both represent Italy, both are right handed, and both are fantastic movers on the court. Yet there are notable differences between the two as well. Sinner has a relatively flat two handed backhand, while Musetti has an outstanding, spinny one hander. Sinner is calm, almost stoic on the court; Musetti is not afraid to pump his fist and show his emotions. Sinner has already established himself as one of the elite players in our sport – as of this writing he is ranked #18 in the world – while Musetti is just now becoming known to the casual tennis fan.
One other notable difference is the path they took, in terms of the mix of tournaments played, before reaching the Top 100. Just to clarify my terminology for the rest of the article: an “Age X” season refers to the year in which a player turned X years old. For example, Sinner was born in 2001, and so his “Age 17” season would be 2018. Musetti was born in 2002, and his “Age 17” season would therefore be the year 2019.
Let’s start with the tail ends of their respective junior careers.
|Career High ITF World Junior Ranking||Rank on January 1st, Going Into Age 17 Season|
Neither Musetti, nor Sinner, played much junior tennis past January 1st of their age 17 season. Lorenzo Musetti played just three more tournaments, one of which was the 2019 Australian Open junior event that he won. He ended up achieving the #1 world junior ranking following his 2019 French Open appearance. Sinner only competed in one junior event in his age 17 season: the Trofeo Bonfiglio Grade A in Milan, which is traditionally the second strongest junior clay court event, behind only the French Open.
While both players turned their attention to the men’s game before their 17th birthdays, the professional tournaments they had to access to – dictated to a large extent by their junior ranking – were different.
Let’s take a quick detour through the structure of men’s professional tennis. There are – roughly speaking – three levels of tournaments. Tournaments on the lowest rung of the ladder are called “Futures;” these offer the lowest prize money, and award the least ranking point totals for winning matches. Tournaments on the second rung are called “Challengers;” these are organized by the ATP, and while they offer higher prize money and higher point totals for winning matches, players need a higher ranking – again, generally speaking – to be entered into a Challenger draw than into a Futures event. Finally, the highest level of the ladder are the major ATP events you see on TV.
Furthermore, there are, for the purposes of this post, three main ways to enter a tournament. Let’s use a Challenger with 32 players competing in the main draw as an example. Out of the 32 players, 24 will be accepted directly into the main draw based on their ranking, 4 will receive a wild card, and 4 will advance from the qualifying draw. The wild cards and qualifying draws are designed to allow access to higher level tournaments to players, who wouldn’t have been accepted into the main draw based on their ATP ranking alone.
A major advantage of a high junior ranking is the attention from sponsors, national tennis governing bodies, and agencies. Once an agency signs a player, or a national tennis federation becomes invested in his/her success, one way in which they can help that player along is securing wild cards into professional events.
This is the breakdown of the first 10 professional tournaments Musetti and Sinner played, and how they entered them.
|Jannik Sinner||Lorenzo Musetti|
|Futures Qualifying: Direct Acceptance||7||1|
|Futures Qualifying: Wild Card||2||–|
|Futures Main Draw: Wild Card||1||2|
|Futures Main Draw: Junior Exempt||–||2|
|Challenger Main Draw: Wild Card||–||4|
|ATP Qualifying: Wild Card||–||1|
Before we go any further, I don’t want to claim that one way is “easier” than the other. In the end, the athlete has to perform at a certain level to beat Challenger-level players and make it to the Top 100. I merely want to illustrate how two young stars got to where they are.
As the great philosopher Drake once said, Sinner “started at the bottom, now he’s here.” All 10 of his first professional tournaments were Futures; furthermore, he started in the qualifying draw in 9 of those. Qualifying draws of Futures are where dreams of professional tennis go to die; there is no prize money, and no ATP points are being awarded for winning matches. The goal for any young aspiring professional tennis player is to play themselves out of that level as quickly as possible.
Musetti, on the other hand, played in only one Futures qualifying event in his career. More importantly, 4 of his first 10 tournaments were Challengers, and he entered those by being awarded a wild card into the main draw. Two things are important to note: first, you start earning ATP points right away in the main draws of Futures and Challengers, hopefully reducing your reliance on wild cards in the future. And second, by being exposed to the level of play and environment of Challengers right away, the player in question hopefully feels like “I belong here” and “I can compete with these guys.” Musetti earned those wild cards by being an elite junior prospect and capitalized on his opportunities.
Despite the different tournament mixes in their first 10 professional events, it took both Sinner and Musetti just over 50 tournaments to achieve the coveted double digit ATP ranking. Below are the number of tournaments they competed at – broken down by the rungs of the ladder – before cracking the Top 100.
|Jannik Sinner||Lorenzo Musetti|
If I had to pick a path, I would pick Musetti’s, simply based on the fact that he spent very little time playing Futures tournaments. In terms of facilities, practice courts, official hotels etc., the Challengers are way closer to the ATP tournament standards than the Futures are. At the same time, I have a ton of respect for Jannik Sinner’s journey. It is not easy to play qualifying events of Futures as a 16/17 year old. The conditions can be rough, winning multiple matches in the qualifying draw before even having a chance to compete for ATP points – one needs a certain level of physical and mental maturity to handle the minor leagues of tennis. The fact that Sinner was able to do that as a teenager is impressive.
In the end, I bet that Musetti will soon join Sinner in the Top 20, and we’ll get to enjoy watching them compete at the highest level of our sport for more than a decade. Slightly different routes, same destination.