Experience Wins Out Over Youth Twice In European Open Semifinals

Andy Murray advances to the final at Antwerp (photo: European Open)

ANTWERP, October 19, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

At a career-high ranking of No. 119, Jannik Sinner has been making the most of his opportunities while enjoying a memorable week in Antwerp, Belgium, competing in the European Open.

The fresh-faced, 18-year-old Italian teen, sporting a colorful purple and black Nike kit accented with a neon yellow ball cap, has played mature beyond his years all week long in the Belgian port city. That is, until he faced three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka Saturday afternoon, and lost 6-3, 6-2 in just 65 minutes. The good thing is that Sinner will learn from his experience of playing against Wawrinka, 34, whom he has lost to twice in two months.

“I am super happy,” Wawrinka said after reaching his second ATP Tour final of the season. “I didn’t play since the US Open, so to be in a final here after a month (away) is great for me. The most important (part) is the way I am playing, the way I am moving and the way I am feeling on the court. It has been great.”

In Sunday’s championship, Wawrinka will take on former World No. 1 Andy Murray, who advanced to his first ATP Tour final since Dubai in 2017 after beating 21-year-old Ugo Humbert of France, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, in two hours and 22 minutes. It sets up a 20th head-to-head meeting between the two tour veterans. The Scot leads Wawrinka 11-8.

Sinner advanced to his first ATP Tour semifinal by defeating fellow #NextGenATP star Frances Tiafoe of the United States, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, on Friday. He became the youngest tour-level semifinalist since Borna Coric accomplished the feat five years ago in Basel, Switzerland, at age 17. Earlier in the tournament, Sinner knocked off top seed Gaël Monfils in straight sets.

“I just can say thanks for the wild card!” said Sinner during an on-court interview after beating Tiafoe. “I think I played good today once more. It was not easy in the end. I was shaking a little bit. On the important points, I was serving quite good, and I’m happy to be in the semifinals.”

With Sinner attempting to become the youngest ATP Tour finalist since 2008, he faced in Wawrinka an experienced player 16 years his senior. As the match wore on, it became a learning exercise for the young Italian, but not before he made believers out of the appreciative crowd that filled Lotto Arena.

Sinner broke the 18th-ranked Swiss star in the opening game and consolidated it for a quick 2-0 lead. However, Wawrinka started back and won five straight games to take control of the match. It wasn’t because Sinner was necessarily doing anything wrong. Instead, Wawrinka was simply playing better – hitting aces and winning more than 70 percent of his first-serve points in the set. He closed out the 34-minute first set with a powerful serve up the T that Sinner netted with a forehand return.

Next, with the momentum clearly favoring Wawrinka, he broke Sinner to open the second set as the Italian teen committed an unforced error by hitting a long forehand. The Swiss No. 2 consolidated his third break with an easy hold at love before Sinner managed to hold serve. Later, Wawrinka broke for a fourth time with a powerful series of groundstroke winners that left Sinner dead in his tracks staring at a 4-1 deficit. Wawrinka continued his dominance with another easy hold to take a commanding 5-1 lead with the finish line nearing. After Sinner finally held at love, the 16-time tour-level titlist Wawrinka closed out his victory at love as Sinner hit a two-fisted backhand long.

Sinner will move on to his next tournament – he received a wild card into the main draw of the Erste Bank Open in Vienna, Austria the begins Monday – with plenty of confidence gained from his breakout week in Antwerp. His ranking is inching close to No. 100.

“I won a good match against Monfils and then I played a tough one against Tiafoe,” said Sinner. “I felt confident today. I started well in the beginning and then after I was not serving so well. … He played better today and I wish him luck for the final.”

It was Wawrinka’s first straight-set triumph this week. He survived a third-set tie-break to beat Feliciano Lopez in his first match, then needed three sets to overcome Gilles Simon during Friday’s quarterfinals.

“Today was the best match of the week,” said Wawrinka. “I was feeling really good (and) confident with my game. I am happy to be in the final.”

So, too, is Murray. In Saturday’s second semifinal, the 243rd-ranked Scot, who entered the main draw using a protected ranking, came back from down a set to beat the 70th-ranked Humbert, who like Sinner was sporting a ball cap – only his was worn backward. Humbert was vying for his first ATP Tour final and to boost his chances of qualifying fort the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Italy. He began the week in eighth place in the ATP Race To Milan and only seven automatically qualify. Meanwhile, it was Murray’s 8th win in 11 matches on the ATP Tour in the past month.

After Murray dropped the opening set, he and Humbert traded breaks early on in the second set. Then, Murray broke Humbert at 6-5 as the Metz native began to tense up. He earned three set points and leveled the match when Humbert committed his third double fault of the semifinal. Finally, after Murray took an early 2-0 lead in the third set, he maintained a safe distance from his opponent and closed out the win on his first match point with a volley winner from near the net into an open court. Murray outpointed Humbert 94-89 with the difference coming from five more points won on his return.

As the 32-year-old Murray chases after his 46th ATP Tour title against Wawrinka, he also hopes to become the second straight British winner in Antrerp. Last year, Kyle Edmund defeated Monfils. With Murray and Wawrinka in this year’s final, it seems just like the good old days.

“It’s been a big surprise to me. I’m happy to be into the final,” Murray said.

Speaking to Amazon Prime, he added: “It’s been a long road to get back to this point. I certainly didn’t expect it to come so soon since I started playing again.”

By the numbers 

At No. 243, Andy Murray is the lowest-ranked ATP Tour finalist since No. 455 Cedrik-Marcel Stebe of Germany at the Swiss Open in Gstaad in July. Murray is trying to become the lowest-ranked ATP champion since No. 355 Pablo Andujar of Spain won the 2018 Grand Prix Hassan II in Marrakech.