Sinner Goes From Great Escape To Citi Open Final

Jannik Sinner and Jenson Brooksby (photo: @CitiOpen/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, August 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Throughout the 52nd edition of the Citi Open, an event that’s been part of the summer sports fabric of the nation’s capital city for more than half a century and produced American champions from Arthur Ashe to Andre Agassi to Andy Roddick, one wondered if the next one could be Jenson Brooksby.

All week long at the ATP 500 hard court event, Brooksby dazzled appreciative crowds with an entertaining style of tennis that produced upsets of higher-ranked opponents. From Kevin Anderson to Frances Tiafoe to Felix Auger-Aliassime to John Millman, Brooksby seemed indefatigable in winning, round by round, and hadn’t dropped a set in his first four matches.

“Jenson Brooksby is the sort of player I love to watch … lots of variety … high tennis IQ … great in defense,” raved British great Andy Murray via Twitter on Friday. Indeed, there’s a lot of Murray to be found in Brooksby, and while the ATP Tour rookie – a new and rising #NextGenATP star – may be gaining ardent fans, what he’s accomplishing between the baselines is a winning combination of brash confidence in himself and belief in his shot-making abilities.

When Brooksby was read Murray’s tweet during his Friday press conference after beating Millman, by Washington Post tennis writer Liz Clarke, he responded, “I think that is very accurate. Obviously, that’s great words to hear from Andy. I mean, he’s one of the best in the sport and a great guy to look up to.”

On Saturday afternoon, in the first Citi Open semifinal at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in northwest Washington, D.C., Brooksby finally met his match in No. 5 seed Jannik Sinner of Italy, the highest seed remaining in the last four, losing 7-6 (2), 6-1 in an hour and 29 minutes. It was the first meeting between the two in what could become a promising #NextGenATP rivalry.

After 20-year-old Brooksby earned triple set point on Sinner’s serve at 5-6, 0-40, which pumped up the Stadium Court crowd – biggest of the week following the two matches that top seed Rafael Nadal drew earlier in the week – Sinner promptly won seven straight points. He went on to win the 57-minute set in a tie break 7-2, which was the first set Brooksby had lost all week. Brooksby had done a good job of keeping Sinner pinned behind the baseline, then surprising him with adroitly-placed drop shots. However, unlike others, Sinner figured out how to handle Brooksby.

Sinner’s great escape seemed to take a bit of energy and positivity out of Brooksby’s game, and the 19-year-old from San Candido in South Tyrol, who served big and well, exerted mental fortitude and huge power from both wings – and it made all the difference. After coming to Washington, D.C. on a four-match losing streak, Sinner has turned things around as the North American hard-court swing picks up momentum and he’s gained a much-needed confidence boost, too. Sinner is the first Italian to reach the Citi Open final – his last three wins have all come against Americans – and he’s won every set.

As Saturday’s match unfolded, Sinner, who hit six aces and finished with 16 winners, including eight from his forehand side – and outpointed Brooksby 69-47 – showed a greater variety in his game and shot selection. He was effective hitting swing volleys against Brooksby. By the end of the match, the 24th-ranked Sinner’s experience – he’s into his third ATP Tour final this year and fourth of his career – rewarded him against the World No. 130, who was playing in his first ATP 500 event. Sinner, who broke Brooksby in the third and fifth games of the second set and won the last five games of the match, committed just 12 unforced errors. He did not face any break points after the first set.

“I have a racquet. There is a ball. I try to hit it,” Sinner declared in press after defeating 81st-ranked American Steve Johnson in Friday’s quarterfinal round. “There are not so many secrets.”

McDonald reaches first ATP Tour-level singles final

Meanwhile, the second semifinal was won by 107th-ranked American Mackenzie McDonald. The native of Piedmont, Calif. went the distance to beat 2015 Citi Open champion Kei Nishikori from Japan, 6-4,  3-6, 7-5, in two hours and 45 minutes. It was their first meeting. The 2016 NCAA singles and doubles champion from UCLA hit 30 winners to 32 unforced errors and outpointed the 67th-ranked Nishikori, appearing in his 14th Citi Open, 111-109. Fully recovered from a brutal 2019 hamstring injury, McDonald’s victory advanced him to his first ATP Tour-level final and he’ll re-enter the ATP Top 70 next week.

“I’m super happy with my level right now and how I’m playing. I think I’m staying focussed throughout these matches which is really key, and something I don’t think I could have done a couple of years ago,” McDonald said during an on-court interview after beating Nishikori, his childhood idol. “I’m super excited to be in a final, my first one. And here in the States, in D.C., it’s something special.”

After McDonald ended the run of local favorite Denis Kudla from Arlington, Va., in Friday’s last quarterfinal, 6-3, 6-2, Kudla acknowledged that there was a changing of the guard in men’s tennis. “There’s a huge opportunity for someone to make a big jump. Who is going to be the next top guys? It’s completely open,” he said.

Although it won’t be Brooksby playing in Sunday’s final, the young American has garnered plenty of positive attention and will break into the Top 100 next week. Next, he’s off to Toronto, where a wild card into the main draw of the ATP Masters 1000 National Bank Open presented by Rogers awaits.

Saturday’s Citi Open results

Sunday’s Citi Open order of play

Around the Citi Open

No. 4 seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Ben McLachlan of Japan advanced to the doubles final with a 6-4, 7-5 win over unseeded Marcus Daniell of New Zealand and Marcelo Melo of Brazil.

Two years ago, Klaasen was part of the Citi Open doubles championship team with New Zealander Michael Venus. This time they’ll be on opposite sides of the net in Sunday’s final after Venus and Neal Skupski of Great Britain, seeded No. 2, beat unseeded Sebastian Korda and Jannik Sinner, 6-3, 6-0 in 44 minutes, in the other semifinal.

By the numbers

Jannik Sinner is the first Italian finalist in Citi Open touranment history. His semifinal appearance against Jenson Brooksby marked just the third time that an Italian had made it to the last four since 1969, the year the tournament began. The others? Corrado Barazzutti (1980) and Renzo Furlan (1996). Also, at age 19, Sinner will try to become the youngest Citi Open champion since then-19-year-old Juan Martín del Potro in 2008.

Mackenzie McDonald is the first American man to reach the Citi Open singles final since John Isner in 2015.

“Quotable …”

“I think I keep it pretty simple. I mean, it’s different for each player. It’s how they approach – how I approach each match and each situation will decide whether you’re going to be like overwhelmed or not, and I think I have done the right things to truly believe that I do approach each one the same.

“Obviously, in the back of my mind I know what each situation is, of course. Yeah, I prepare the same way, and, I mean, no match at a challenger is easy either, whether it’s there or her, you know, a Slam or anything. So, you have to each approach each one the same way and prepare the same way. I do.”

Jenson Brooksby on whether he approaches playing on the ATP Tour any differently than when he was competing on the Challenger and ITF tours.