In Sofia, NextGen ATP Finals Rematch Goes Sinner’s Way

Jannik Sinner (photo: Sofia Open/

WASHINGTON/SOFIA, November 12, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

At 19, Jannik Sinner may be the youngest player in the ATP Tour Top 100. However, if his latest win Thursday afternoon that placed him into the Sofia Open semifinals is any indication, youth is being served in a big way this week in the Bulgarian capital city.

Playing three consecutive days hasn’t seemed to faze the 44th-ranked Italian teenager from San Candido in South Tyrol in the least. He strung together impressive victories over No. 55 Marton Fucsovics of Hungary and No. 149 Marc-Andrea Huelser of Switzerland to get to the quarterfinals. By the end of his 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-1 victory over No. 3 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia, Sinner was clearly the better player on the court in their rematch of the 2019 Next Gen ATP Finals from Milan and, certainly, the one who kept his composure the best.

“When you play these kinds of matches, you have a little bit extra pressure in trying to manage [the moment]. It’s not that easy. I guess I tried to find a good balance on the court,” said Sinner, who won his 17th ATP Tour-level match of the season, during his virtual press conference. “In the beginning, maybe it was a little too much on the big points, the important points. … I was prepared. He was playing faster than Milan last year.”

After an early exchange of service breaks during the first four games of the two-hour and 11-minute match, de Minaur won the 57-minute first set in a tiebreak 7-3, in which the Aussie won the final four points. He closed it out on his first set point opportunity when Sinner ended an eight-shot rally with a long forehand return.

Then, as both players continued to show good match IQ in the second set, each started to take calculated but cleaver risks, whether it be an inside-out forehand attack by Sinner or a variety of slice and drop shots by de Minaur. Both players truly wanted to win this battle.

At 2-1, Sinner served a love game and de Minaur responded with a love game of his own to remain on serve at 3-2. Then, at 3-all, Sinner broke de Minaur on his second break-point opportunity of the game to cap a 12-point effort after being down love-40. De Minaur was visibly frustrated by the game’s outcome and seemed to be having trouble controlling his emotions. Sinner consolidated the break but not before saving two break points for a 5-3 lead.

One game later, Sinner faced 15-40 trying to serve out the set. He saved one break point with a linear forehand strike for a winner, then gained deuce when de Minaur hit a long forehand return. Sinner gained set point with a backhand winner that de Minaur failed to volley return at the net, but de Minaur dodged a bullet. However, Sinner won the set on his second set-point opportunity when de Minaur sailed a backhand return long. Thus, after one hour and 44 minutes, the match was dead even and headed for a decider.

The third set began with Sinner collecting an early break, winning the last two points of the opening game with a forehand winner and an unforced error by de Minaur. He consolidated the break with a hold for a 2-0 advantage as de Minaur continued to rack up the unforced errors through a variety of mishaps. Sinner increased his lead to 3-0 with a backhand winner that finished a 10-point, 10-shot skirmish and left de Minaur dead in his tracks as the match reached the two-hour mark. Sinner consolidated another break for a 4-0 lead. His body language exuded confidence. By this juncture of the match, he was making de Minaur work hard for every point. Sinner held at love for 5-1, looking to close out the quarterfinal match before his opponent could recover. He did just that with a love break of de Minaur to advance to the semifinals.

In the final game, Sinner went ahead love-40 on a trio of forehand errors by de Minaur that set up match point. Then, Sinner promptly put it away when de Minaur sailed a forehand long that wrapped up a seven-shot exchange.

“The key [in the big moments] is the balance on the court, trying to understand how big I should go,” Sinner said.“The important points, when you serve, try to serve with the first serve in and maybe, then, it is a little bit easier to win the point.

“I was just focusing of that and trying to let [Alex] play in one corner because he moves dry fast. … My tactic was to stay in one corner and try and play a little bit faster than him.”

Looking ahead to Friday’s semifinal against No. 5 seed Adrian Mannarino of France, who is ranked nine spots better than Sinner, he said: “[Adrian] is a tough player, a lefty [who is] serving well and moving well in long rallies. It is going to be a physical match.

“I have to talk to my coach about how I am going to play … and try to be prepared.”

Around the Sofia Open

• What a difference a week has made for France’s Adrian Mannarino. A week after the No. 35 Mannarino crashed out of the Rolex Paris Masters after suffering a heartbreaking three-set loss to then-World No. 7 Alexander Zverev, the fifth-seeded Frenchman has strung together three nice victories in Sofia this week. On Thursday, Mannarino hit seven aces, won 72 percent (33 of 46) first-serve points and saved two of four break points to defeat No. 93 Radu Albot of Moldova, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 to reach the semifinal round.

After Albot saved a match point by winning an 18-shot rally to hold serve, the patient Mannarino closed out the first quarterfinal match on the day on his second match-point opportunity by hitting a backhand winner that capped a five-shot rally on his serve.

“I am happy that I was able to close the match,” said Mannarino during a virtual interview after his 14th ATP Tour-level victory of the season and his 19th overall in all competitions. “That was a really open match. I have been practicing with [Radu] many times. I knew that he is a really good guy. It is just like little details. Maybe, I was a little bit luckier today.”

Mannarino, who reached the final at the Astana Open in Nur-Sultan last month, is through to his second semifinal of the season. He’s 12-6 in hard court play since the the ATP Tour relaunch.

“It’s been a long year, even though we didn’t have so many tournaments to play, and we all have been practicing a lot to stay in shape. It’s mid-November now and all the players are feeling exhausted. I am still motivated for even maybe more. I am happy with the result. So, I will just try to keep going on this way.”

Next, Mannarino, who is 5-4 lifetime at Sofia including a 2016 quarterfinal run, will face Jannik Sinner. “Everybody is thinking the same about Jannik,” he said. “He is really talented, really mature for his age. It is obvious that he is going to be in the Top 10 in the next few years. It is just a matter of time. 

“He is really talented; he is good and he is tall. He has a good staff around him. I think all the pieces are matching together for him to become a really, really good player.”

• No. 74 Vasek Pospisil, the last Canadian standing among the three who began the week in Sofia (including No. 1 seed Denis Shapovalov and No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, who both lost in the second round), defeated No. 6 seed John Millman of Australia, 6-3, 6-2, in 72 minutes. It was Pospisil’s 15th victory of the season and advanced him to his second semifinal of 2020.

Pospisil jumped out to a double-break lead at 5-1 and put away the 42-minute opening set on his first-set point opportunity by capping a 12-shot rally with a backhand volley slice that Millman hit long with a forehand return going for a passing shot. Then, ahead 5-2, Pospisil closed out the contest on his first match point with his fifth ace. He dropped just four points (winning 24 of 28) on his first serve and his four breaks of Millman’s serve gave him some comfortable margins in both sets. Pospisil outpointed Millman 64-42 to advance against Richard Gasquet.

“Today, I was very close to my best days on the court,” Pospisil said during his virtual press conference. “I was playing a little better, moving a little better. Serving, returning, striking the ball. It will be great [to play on to the final] but there are many good players left. There is a tough match coming up in the next round. It feels great to be in a semifinal.”

• No. 49 Richard Gasquet of France held on to beat No. 82 Salvatore Caruso from Italy, 7-6 (4), 7-5, in one hour and 55 minutes to reach his first ATP Tour semifinal of the season. Gasquet, who fired 11 aces and won 76 percent of his service points, set up match point with a brilliant slice backhand. Then, he won when Caruso hit a forehand return long. The Italian came back in the final set from 2-5 to level the score at 5-all. However, Gasquet held and broke Caruso to pull out the victory. He outpointed his opponent 83-69.

“It was a good win and I’ve won three matches in a row now,” said Gasquet. “I’m trying my best to reach the final. I have nothing to lose. This has been a good tournament for me. I’ll try my best to beat Vasek.”

• In Thursday’s first doubles semifinal, No. 2 seeds Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski, both of Great Britain, rallied for a 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 10-4 victory over Fabrice Martin of France and Hugo Nys from Monaco to reach their third championship match of the season to go along with the Western & Southern Open in New York and at Vienna. They will await the winner of Friday’s second semifinal between No. 1 seeds Juergen Melzer of Austria and Edouard Roger-Vasselin from France against Tomislav Brkic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Marin Cilic from Croatia.

There’s one spot remaining for the Nitto ATP Finals in London and it will go to either Murray/Skupski or Melzer/Roger-Vasselin. Melzer/Roger-Vasselin can attain the berth by winning their semifinal match Friday.