Sinner Off And Running With Victory At Antwerp

Jannik Sinner (photo: ATP Tour video)

ANTWERP/WASHINGTON, October 20, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As this year’s European Open reached mid week in the Flemish port city of Antwerp, top seed and headliner Jannik Sinner, a three-time ATP Tour winner this season, took court for the first time.

The World No. 13 Sinner’s second-round match against No. 69 Lorenzo Musetti, both from Italy, had a #NextGenATP as well as an Italian flavor to it and Wednesday evening’s featured match provided fans inside Lotto Arena with a good entertainment value. After Sinner’s 7-5, 6-2, victory in an economical hour and 34 minutes, the future of Italian tennis looks bright with Sinner leading the way.

Sinner showed more confidence than Musetti and was in total control of his game from start to finish. He won all 10 of his service games and faced just one break point, which he saved. Sinner showed he’s a player who is used to winning titles. After securing a quarterfinal berth on his third match-point opportunity, after Musetti saved a couple on his service during the seventh game of the second set, the usually stoic young Italian allowed himself to show a bit of emotion with a fist pump in celebration of his victory.

“It’s never easy playing against [Lorenzo],” Sinner said during his on-court TV interview. “We never practice together, so it was kind of a new match. He’s an incredible player, very, very young. He’s a very great talent, so I hope we will have a couple of more matches on the pro tour, and obviously, I’m very happy about my level today.”

Suprisingly, it was the first time that the two young rising stars from different regions of Italy – Sinner is 20 from South Tyrol while Musetti is 19 and hails from Tuscany – had played each other. While Sinner has strung together three title-winning performances this season – winning crowns in Melbourne at the Great Ocean Road; Washington, D.C. in the Citi Open; and Sofia at the Sofia Open – Musetti has struggled the past few months. He arrived in Antwerp after having lost 10 of his last 12 matches going back to his fifth-set retirement against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the round of 16 at the French Open and hadn’t won consecutive matches since Roland Garros. Although he entered with an 8-2 record against players from Italy, he was unable to find a way to master Sinner. Musetti’s overall season win-loss mark dropped to 19-18 with Thursday’s loss.

On serve through the first 10 games of the match, Sinner broke through first after Musetti was unable to return his backhand volley at the net. He consolidated the break at love to win the first set 7-5 in 51 minutes. Winning the final seven points of the opening set, Sinner took charge on set point by hitting a series of two-fisted backhands that pinned Musetti at the baseline. On the 12th shot of the rally, Musetti let go of a one-armed backhand that hit nothing but net. Sinner was solid, winning points on 85 percent of his first serves and backing it with an 82-percent efficiency on his second serve. He saved the only break point he faced from Musetti, which came back in the fourth game.

Then, in the second set, at 1-all, Sinner broke Musetti on consecutive service games and won four straight games to take a commanding 5-1 lead. Soon, it was over after Musetti netted a backhand on the eighth shot of the final rally. Afterward, the two shared a warm embrace at the net and there was nothing but mutual respect among them. Despite just a year’s difference in age, Sinner showed his game is mature well beyond its years – and just a little further along than Musetti.

“In these past two years, some things have changed obviously, but in another way I still have a lot to improve,” Sinner said. “I’m happy to be in the position where I am right now. But still a couple tournaments to play, and hopefully I can play great tennis.”

After a rest day, Sinner, who is currently in 11th place in the FedEx ATP Race To Turin – still with a chance to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals – will be back on court for Friday’s quarterfinal round to face surprising 65th-ranked Arthur Rinderknech of France.

Around the European Open

• No. 65 Arthur Rinderknech of France went the distance against No. 8 seed Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, ranked 33rd, and won 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 to become the first to reach Friday’s quarterfinal round. It’s his sixth ATP Tour main draw quarterfinal of the season – pretty good for someone who hadn’t won a tour-level match before the start of 2021.

Down 0-40 in his first service game of the decider, Rinderknech rallied to hold serve. Later, he took advantage of a double fault and a couple of unforced errors by Lajovic to gain a double-break lead at 5-2. Rinderknech promptly served out the second-round victory and closed it out with his 13th ace. He celebrated emphatically with a fist pump, then cheerfully signed autographs for plenty of young school-aged  fans waiting with their oversized tennis balls behind Rindernech’s bench.

Rinderknech won 76 percent (42 of 55) of his first-serve points, saved six of the eight break points he faced and broke Lajovic’s serve four times during the one hour and 54 minute match.

“I did what I needed to do, especially against a player like Lajovic, such a good player from the ground,” Rinderknech said during an on-court TV interview after his win. “It was a weird first set – I didn’t get the rhythm right the first few shots – but I’m happy to take it.

“I’m feeling great, staying up on my two legs. I’m feeling good.”

• Meanwhile, seventieth-ranked qualifier Jenson Brooksby of the United States dominated No. 61 Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands during their second-round matchup, easily winning 6-2, 6-0, to advance to his third ATP Tour tour-level quartefinal of the season. The victory improved Brooksby’s ATP Tour win-loss record to 14-6.

Coming off a big, straight-set win over American No. 1 and 25th-ranked Reilly Opelka on Tuesday, Brooksby carried the momentum from his Top 25 triumph into his match against van de Zandschulp, who was a quarterfinalist in the recent US Open. He seemed to have all of the answers and emphatically dominated van de Zandschulp.

After winning four matches in Antwerp – two in qualifying as the No. 1 seed and two in the main draw – Brooksby seems to be improving with every match.

“I feel like it, so far,” Brooksby said during an on-court TV interview following his victory. “It’s never as easy as the score looks sometimes. I started out as strong today if not stronger. I didn’t let up my focus at all and I think it showed.”

Brooksby jumped out to a double-break 4-1 lead against his Dutch opponent and consolidated it for a 5-1 advantage. Soon, he served out the first set after he was taken to deuce by van de Zandschulp, winning the 36-minute opening set 6-2 on his fourth set point.

Then, Brooksby, who dominated van de Zandschulp on both his service and returns games throughout, continued to pressure his opponent in the second set. He jumped out to a 5-0 advantage, enjoying a triple-break lead. The 20-year-old #NextGenATP rising star closed out his one-hour and three-minute victory on his serve and clinched it on his first match point.

Brooksby outpointed van de Zandschulp 60-32, winning points consistently on both his first (71 percent) and second (80 percent) serve. He also attacked van de Zandschulp by winning 60 percent of the Dutchman’s second serves. Brooksby converted five of 10 break points. It all added up nicely.

“I’ve been trying to take it one day at a time, enjoying the last few tournaments and the rest of the season, and to have a fun off-season” said Brooksby, who turns 21 next week. “I’m looking forward to a big season next year, hopefully.”

• Next, Brooksby will play No. 44 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain, who upset No. 3 seed Cristian Garin of Chile, ranked 17th, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, to close out Wednesday’s night session.

With great energy and determination, Davidovich Fokina reeled in the Chilean, converting four of eight break points and outpointing Garin 90-82 during the one-hour and 55-minute match.

“It was a tough match and [Cristian] was playing very solid,” Davidovich Fokina said during his on-court interview after the match. “In the beginning, I missed a lot of points with my backhand. I’m here to enjoy every match, every point – and to feel the crowd again, it’s amazing. Thanks to you, I made it. … I’m ready for the next match.”

Top doubles seeds advance

Wednesday was highlighted by the completion of the first round of doubles. The 16-team field has been trimmed in half with the quarterfinal pairings now set.

• No. 1 seeds Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Marcelo Melo of Brazil advanced with a 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over Dutch pair David Pel and Botic van de Zandschulp. They will face wild cards Lloyd Harris of South Africa and Xavier Matisse of Belgium, who defeated Matt Reid of Australia and Romain Arneodo of Monaco, 6-4, 7-6.

• No. 3 seeds Wesley Koolhof and Jean-Julien Rojer of the Netherlands advanced with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Roman Jebavy of the Czech Republic and Andrej Vasilevski of Belarus. Next, they will play Lorenzo Musetti of Italy and Benoit Paire of France, who won their first-round match on Monday over Nicholas Monroe and Reilly Opelka, both of the United States.

• No. 4 seeds Sander Gille and Jordan Vliegen of Belgium were upset by Federico Delbonis of Argentina and David Vega Hernandez of Spain, 5-7, 6-4, 11-9. Next, Delbonis and Hernandez will oppose Denys Molchanov of Ukraine and Aleksandr Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan, who defeated Frederik Nielsen of Denmark and Matej Sabanov of Croatia, 6-4, 6-4.

Oliver Marach and Philipp Oswald, both of Austria, advanced with a come-from-behind 4-6, 6-4, 10-6 victory over Jonathan Erlich of Israel and Andre Goransson of Sweden. Next, the Austrians face No. 2 seeds Nicolas Mahut and Fabrice Martin, both of France.

Wednesday’s European Open results

Thursday’s European Open order of play

Harris not afraid to take on Top 20 competition

Lloyd Harris arrived in Antwerp for the European Open seeded seventh, sporting a 27-20 win-loss record for 2021 and was drawn to play popular up-and-coming Belgian player Zizou Bergs.

“It’s a challenge to come out immediately against Zizou Bergs, someone from the area here,” Harris said during the European Open draw ceremony over the weekend. “I’m looking forward to playing against him.”

Harris reached court late Tuesday evening for his first-round match against the 22-year-old, 186th-ranked wild card Biggs, who was playing in just his fifth ATP Tour main-draw match. While Bergs drew plenty of applause from the Antwerp fans inside Lotto Arena, Harris won the first-round match 7-6 (4), 6-3. He was successful in 85 percent of his first-serve points and wasn’t broken in the match. Next, Harris will play Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff, ranked 50th, on Thursday for a berth in the quarterfinals. It will be their first meeting.

Earlier this season, the 32nd-ranked South African reached the final in Dubai as a qualifier before losing to Aslan Karatsev of Russia. En route, he defeated then-No. 4 Dominic Thiem in the second round.

In his last three tournaments, Harris was defeated by Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals of the US Open, then lost a second-round match to Diego Schwartzman at the San Diego Open, and recently fell in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open to Casper Ruud.

While the 24-year-old Harris has not fared well against Top 20 competition, he hasn’t back down, either. Recently, the 6-foot-3-inch Cape Town native upset then-World No. 3 Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4, in the third round at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., for the biggest win of his career, which drew a lot of favorable recognition. He’s been the African No. 1 since January 2020.

In last year’s European Open, Harris entered the main draw as a qualifier and went 2-1 and reached the quarterfinals before dropping a 6-3, 7-6 (2) decision to eventual champion Ugo Humbert of France.

During a recent interview with the ATP Tour website, Harris was asked if he’s gone to a tournament because he wanted to visit a particular city. He said: “It is nice to visit and see new places. It is quite refreshing. I have not played that many years on the Tour, so it is not like I have played all the events. Some of the events are new for me, so I enjoy going to them. I also like going to events where I have played well and enjoy the conditions and have done well in the past.”