Sinner, Brooksby Set Up Semifinal Clash At Citi Open

Jannik Sinner (photo: @CitiOpen/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, August 7, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

With Thursday’s twin upsets of the top two seeds at this year’s Citi OpenRafael Nadal and Felix Auger-Aliassime – as the quarterfinal round unfolded at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in northwest Washington, D.C. on Friday, as many as three Americans could reach the semifinals.

The last time it happened was all the way back in 2001 with Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and eventual champion Andy Roddick. All three of them are now in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The four remaining Americans at the start of the day – Steve Johnson, Jenson Brooksby, Denis Kudla and Mackenzie McDonald – were all unseeded. Add to the mix, 2015 champion Kei Nishikori of Japan, and quarterfinal Friday began with five unseeded players in the last eight for the first time since 2008.

By the end of the day, two Americans – Brooksby and McDonald – advanced to Saturday’s semifinals and just one seed, No. 5 Jannik Sinner of Italy, remained.

Brooksby wins again, breaks into Top 100 

The afternoon began with No. 11 seed John Millman of Australia, one of three seeds in the quarterfinals, going up against the 130th-ranked wild card Brooksby, who impressively took out No. 2 Auger-Aliassime 6-3, 6-4. The young, 20-year-old American from Sacramento, Calif. had not lost a set in his first three matches on Stadium Court – and after handily beating Millman, 6-1, 6-2, in 66 minutes, he’s become the lowest-ranked Citi Open semifinalist since No. 416 John Isner in 2007. Brooksby broke open a 3-0 lead at the beginning of the match and never let up. He saved the only break point he faced and outpointed Millman 59-34.

Before the match, Brooksby said he was excited to play Millman. “He’s had a good year. I know he’s a very solid, very good player. But I’m very confident going in with my level and my mental state.”

After beating Millman, Brooksby said in press: “Starting strong is my mentality. It means the preparation up to it [the match] is good. What I need to work on the most is when it gets later on in matches. It was harder today [with the heat], but I am in good shape.”

The 43rd-ranked Millman, who defeated Brooksby, 6-4, 6-2, 6-0, in the American’s tour-level debut at the 2018 US Open, faced a different player than he did three years ago. On Friday, Brooksby hit with plenty of variety and won often with his brilliant choice of slice and backhand volley.

“He is going to make you work hard but I know I am physical and I started really strongly in the first set,” Brooksby said. “I sort of lost focus at times in the second set but that is part of it. I was still able to stay positive throughout.

Brooksby’s ascent to the Citi Open semifinals in his first ATP Tour 500 tournament means he’ll crack the Top 100 next week. On Saturday, he’ll get to face the 19-year-old Sinner in a highly-anticipated matchup of #NextGenATP rising stars.

Sinner youngest among semifinalists

Sinner, the highest remaining seed left in the draw, took on Johnson, who at 31 was the oldest of the Americans remaining. Johnson, who was part of a quartet of American quarterfinalists five years ago, was looking to reach his third Citi Open semifinal after achieving that feat in 2015-16. However, Sinner had other plans and the World No. 24 rolled to a 6-4, 6-2 victory in 70 minutes to advance against Brooksby, which will mark the second-youngest Citi Open semifinal in terms of combined age since 1991.

During his on-court interview, Sinner said of Johnson: “It is not easy, he is a big server. You have to find the right balance on court. I tried to move him earlier than he moved me, and I think that was the key today. I tried to get further forward and push him back and make him change something.

“He is a huge server, so if you return in the same way he can get used to it. So, you need to change it up. I think I have done that quite well and my serve today was better.”

Sinner became just the third Italian to reach the Citi Open semifinals and first in 25 years.

Nishikori breaks string of quarterfinal losses

As night settled in, 24 hours after his phenomenal performance in upsetting the top-seeded Nadal, No. 14 seed Lloyd Harris of South Africa took on Nishikori of Japan, a five-time quarterfinalist at the Citi Open and 12-time titlist on the ATP Tour. Nishikori, 31, is the only one of the group of eight who has won an ATP 500-level event, which he has achieved six times.

The No. 67 Nishikori jumped out to a 4-0 lead early in the match, which set the tone for things to come. Although Harris saved a match point to level the second set at 5-all, Nishikori pulled out a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Harris with a display of hustle and determination, hitting 18 winners against just 14 unforced errors. He withstood 10 aces by Harris, who finished with 26 winners and 23 unforced errors. The victory enabled Nishikori to break a string of six straight quarterfinal losses going back to 2019 and it’s his first semifinal appearance since Barcelona in 2019.

“The way I feel on the court is very nice, very comfortable, being aggressive. I’m finally start feeling the ball,” Nishikori, who improved to 19-14, said earlier this week. “So feel like beating top 10, it’s been two years also. But after coming back from my wrist injury, last week was first time I felt like strong, and I feel like I’m carrying that this week too.

“Very happy. Very pleased that how I keep playing like this. There is some up and downs, but, yeah, last two weeks I have been feeling pretty nice.”

McDonald wins all-American battle with Kudla

Finally, Kudla, the hometown hero from nearby Arlington, Va. who turns 29 later this month, and McDonald, the former UCLA collegiate national champion, met in an all-American tussle for the final semifinal berth that was all McDonald’s. He easily beat Kudla, 6-3, 6-2, in an hour and 15 minutes, in back of six aces and 15 winners. McDonald converted three of four break points and outpointed Kudla 64-46 to advance to his first ATP Tour semifinal of the season against Nishikori.

Looking back, there was positivity in defeat for Nadal

World No. 3 and Citi Open top seed Rafael Nadal was upset by unheralded No. 50 Lloyd Harris of South Africa, 6-4, 1-6, 6-1 Thursday night, ending his debut in Washington, D.C. During his post-match press conference, the Spaniard was pragmatic about his defeat.

“The most positive thing is my foot was better today than yesterday, so that’s the best news possible,” he said. “I played against a player that played well. For the moment, I think I played better than yesterday, but in the third when I had opportunities, the truth is his serve was huge and I played this game really badly.”

While Nadal served at 4-5 in the final set to stay in the match, Harris hit a perfect lob on match point that the Spaniard was unable to touch. The upset was complete. Nadal received a standing ovation from the sold-out stadium audience of 7,800 at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in northwest Washington as he left Stadium Court for the final time this week.

“You can’t have mistakes in the key moments, and in the key moments I think in the last game, I was a little bit more nervous. My serve was not working the proper way,” Nada said. “That’s it. Yes, well done for him. It’s a great victory for him. I wish him all the very best.”

After sitting out the past two months, idle during Wimbledon and the recently Olympic Tennis Event while recovering from a foot injury, Nadal finished with two three-set matches under his belt with a 1-1 win-loss record to show for his week in the nation’s capital city.

“I was able to move a bit better, so that is very important, especially for me personally, to keep enjoying the sport and keep having energy, believing that important things are possible,” Nadal said. “And then I need to keep improving. It’s true. I honestly didn’t have two easy months. I had a lot of problems with my foot. I was not able to practise all the days that I really wanted, but I did as much as I could and I tried hard here. …

“For me is just just keep going. Accept the challenge that I need to keep working, and I’ll probably have another chance next week in Toronto. I’m going to keep trying my best.”

Citi Open Women’s Invitational showcases Gauff

After the Citi Open lost its sanction to host a companion WTA women’s tournament, tournament organizers decided to stage a women’s invitational to showcase American sensation Coco Gauff. U.S. Olympian Jessica Pegula, the 2019 Citi Open champion, was added as well as American Top 20 star Jennifer Brady, who subsequently had to pull out of the exhibition series with a foot injury. This week World No. 15 Victoria Azarenka was named to replace Brady.

The non-sanctioned exhibition round-robin dubbed the Citi Open Women’s Invitational, designed to give each player a good opportunity to play against quality opponents, began Thursday evening following the completion of Rafael Nadal’s loss to Lloyd Harris. Gauff easily beat Azarenka 6-3, 6-1.

“It definitely means a lot to be out here on the court even if it’s just an exhibition,” Gauff said Thursday before playing Azarenka. “Just to play in front of the crowd, especially since we are going to Canada, which will be a bubble. So, it will be nice just to get some crowd experience and be in the crowd before it’s time to go back to the bubbles.”

Unfortunately, Azarenka was forced to pull out of her scheduled Friday afternoon match against Pegula after rolling her ankle in practice earlier in the day.

Gauff will face Pegula Saturday evening after the second men’s semifinal.

Friday’s Citi Open results

Saturday Citi Open order of play

Around the Citi Open

By the numbers

“Quotable …”

“The most painful thing is [to] not be able to be on court again tomorrow in front of this amazing crowd. But I take a great experience [with] me. I was able to know a new city, for me a very important one. I enjoyed [it], an the support and the love of the people will stay [with] me.”

Rafael Nadal reflecting on his third-round loss to Lloyd Harris Thursday evening.

“Today was really special. I think I have had some big wins, and this year I have beat some Grand Slam champions. But to beat a 20-time Grand Slam champion, and especially in front of a full crowd and with such an amazing atmosphere, it wa definitely something special.”

– No. 12 seed Lloyd Harris on his upset win against Rafael Nadal at the Citi Open.

“No, it’s never been easy. It’s still not easy, but it’s a learning process. I think it’s going to be like this all my career. I’m going to be in many different positions in my career.

“I’m still, of course, a young player, kind of favorite in tournaments like this now, and the future might be even more.

“Losses are never going to be easy to take, but I think, you know, I have become more and more mature and humble with wins and losses.

“You know, it’s part of my career. There is so many matches played during the year, and you try your best, but at the end of the day you have to accept the outcome. Yo have to accept the outcome, move on, and stay positive. I think it’s what I try to do. It’s not always been easy, but, yeah, I try to force myself to have that perspective and really lock in on that.”

– No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, who lost to Jenson Brooksby in the third round on Thursday afternoon.