How Jannik Sinner hit Wimbledon's best tweener against Ben Shelton

WIMBLEDON — Ben Shelton stood at the side of Centre Court in disbelief, joined by everybody in the crowd, everybody watching across the world — and even Jannik Sinner, his opponent on the other side of the net.

A Sinner forehand pass had just rocketed past his despairing lunge to intercept it. The world No 1 had just wriggled out of another game he had to win to stay in the third set. He was 2-0 down after playing on every single day of the Championships so far thanks to rain delays.

None of this had anything to do with the disbelief. That came from something else.

Sinner had dealt with an exceptional forehand return from Shelton by flicking it impudently back between his legs. He’d hit a tweener, the tennis trickshot most associated with the jokers, chancers, and the desperate of the sport, on Centre Court at Wimbledon, off a ball that 95 per cent of players would have struggled to dig out with a conventional groundstroke. He surprised Shelton so much that he nearly hit a clean winner, with the American only able to dig out a slice forehand that the Italian duly dispatched.

“That was luck,” he said on court afterwards. Well, it wasn’t, not really.

So how did he do it? And what makes this example of a tweener one of the most ridiculous in recent times?

It started with a first serve. Sinner goes out wide to Shelton’s forehand, but he doesn’t quite hit a spot steep enough on the sideline to stretch him. The ball instead ends up right in Shelton’s strike zone.

Shelton duly whips a forehand back into play, straight onto Sinner’s toes.

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There are a few things to note here. Sinner is not set in the patterned rhythm of a groundstroke rally — he is coming down from his service motion, landing on his left foot only as Shelton makes contact. The ball is on him so quickly that he has to shuffle backwards in around half a second, while also deciding what to do.

Typically, a deep return like this, directed straight at a player’s body with no spacing on either side, leads to an awkward dig-out, chipping the ball up high (and often out, as controlling the angle of the racket face is difficult.) Sinner still only has one hand on the racket because he’s been serving, so the two-handed scoop, like a cricketer preparing to hit the ball over their shoulder, is out.

All of these conditions mean the tweener isn’t just instinct — it’s the best shot selection in the circumstances, as Sinner said himself in his post-match press conference: “In this case, it was still the easiest shot. I didn’t have space to go right and left.”

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He still has to execute it.

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Shelton, it has to be remembered, has as little time to react to what is happening as Sinner does. He certainly isn’t expecting a low, skidding ball — the kind you might get off a slice — to be coming back to him after putting a return onto his opponent’s toes.

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Sinner’s shot is so good that Shelton has to slice it down the line and commit to coming to the net from a difficult position. Sinner, having been on the back foot in the point moments before, is now staring at open court, the ball perfectly in his forehand strike zone. Only one thing is going to happen next.

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batch Sinner Shelton Tweener Pass

The hold of serve in a difficult third set helped get him to a tiebreak, which he won, moving into the quarter-finals against No 5 seed Daniil Medvedev.

This only partly explains what makes this such an utterly ridiculous shot. The most common use of the tweener is from a player whose back is to their opponent having been lobbed. Instead of trying to hit the ball over their shoulder, they will hit it blind between their legs. They have a decision to make, in which at least a few options are viable, and they choose the tweener.

This most often results in a terrible lob that gets smashed away, the ball going long, wide, both, or into the net, or, yes, sometimes a ridiculous winner.

The most common circumstance for a front-on tweener is using it as a replacement for a regular groundstroke in the set rhythm of a rally, just for a bit of fun, for the lols. Wimbledon 2022 finalist Nick Kyrgios is a master of this — even though he can sometimes hit a mean tweener winner, too.

What makes Sinner’s tweener so special is the micro-calculations he made between coming out of his service motion and making the shot, evaluating that it was the best shot to play in the circumstances and executing it flawlessly. Winning the point obviously helped — and even the best men’s tennis player in the world has to laugh at himself sometimes.

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(Top photo: Wimbledon)

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