Harris Quietly, Effectively Reaches European Open Semifinals

Lloyd Harris and Xavier Malisse (photo: European Open)

ANTWERP/WASHINGTON, October 22, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As the quarterfinal round of the European Open in Antwerp, Belgium got underway Friday, the top two seeds – World No. 13 Jannik Sinner of Italy and Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman, ranked 14th – remained in the chase for the title in this ATP Tour 250 indoor hard court event as well as a couple of American qualifiers, No. 70 Jenson Brooksby and No. 79 Brandon Nakashima, both who have played inspired tennis all week.

Quietly but effectively going about their job in this port city known for its diamond industry have also been No. 7 seed Lloyd Harris of South Africa and Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics as well as Arthur Rinderknech of France, who starred collegiately in the United States at Texas A&M. Finally, there’s Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who has also been taking care of business – but a little more demonstratively, as is his personality.

In the opening quarterfinal match between the 32nd-ranked Harris and No. 39 Fucsovics, in their third meeting with their head-to-head tied at 1-1, the Hungarian looked to attain his second semifinal of the season after reaching his fifth quarterfinal by impressively knocking out No. 4 seed Roberto Bautista Agut on Thursday. Meanwhile, Harris reached his fifth quarterfinal of the season after beating Jan-Lennard Struff in straight sets and was looking to gain his second semifinal berth, too. He came into the match with a 13-7 win-loss record on hard courts since Wimbledon.

On this day, Harris proved to be the better competitor and won 6-2, 7-5 in an hour and 25 minutes to advance against Sinner, who beat Rinderknech in straight sets in the next quarterfinal match on Lotto Arena’s Center Court. The South African outpointed Fucsovics 62-50.

Harris dominated the 36-minute opening set by gaining a double-break lead at 5-2, then won with a love hold. He hit six aces, won 84 percent (16 of 19) of his first serves and was effective simply by keeping the ball in the court. The quality of his play – he faced only one break point during the first set – was in stark contrast to Fucsovics, who was unable to generate much momentum and often played from behind in the score.

Later, on serve at 3-all, Harris broke Fucsovics and consolidated the break for a 5-3 advantage. After the Hungarian held at love, Harris faced just his second break point second all afternoon as he served for the match. Fucsovics came back from the brink and broke with a crafty backhand volley as he came into the net to level the set at 5-all. However, Harris recovered nicely, earned back the break to go ahead 6-5, and would serve for the match, again. This time, he seized his opportunity and closed out the victory by winning exciting 26-shot rally on his first match-point opportunity.

Harris finished with eight aces, won 71 percent (41 of 58) of his service points and broke Fucsovics four times in seven opportunities.

“It’s never a fun situation to be serving for the match and get broken,” Harris said during a Zoom interview after his win. “I think it can easily swing things around, you see that all the time. I’ve done the same before. It was about staying calm, thinking about the next point and trying to put [the service break] out of my head as soon as possible. That’s what I try to do throughout all of my matches. I think it’s something I did exceptionally well today.

“I played a really good game today, and served it out. It was a bit of a tough situation with me not making first serves when I was trying to serve out the match. There were some very high quality points. I wasn’t worried about my tennis. I knew it was going to be harder to finish the match.”

Asked by Tennis TourTalk what he’s learned about himself from his three victories in the main draw – against Zizou Bergs, Struff and Fucsovics – that’s moved him into Saturday’s semifinal round, Harris said: “What I’ve learned is I enjoy playing here so much. Coming here, I was two days [at home] in Dubai and came here. I felt rushed and didn’t have much time to prepare. Ever since I arrived, I’ve really enjoyed myself – off court and on court. The crowd has been amazing, obviously sharing the court with Xavier [Malisse playing doubles] has been special. I’ve learned that when my head is in a good space, the tennis goes pretty well.”

On Saturday, Harris will do double duty, in both singles and in doubles, where he and popular 41-year-old Xavier Malisse of Belgium, a former Top 25 in both singles and doubles who recently has been helping coach the South African, will also play in the doubles semifinals.

Solid Sinner punches ticket to sixth ATP Tour semifinal this season

Next, 20-year-old Jannik Sinner, who has enjoyed an impressive season and reached eight quarterfinals – winning three titles – took on Arthur Rinderknech of France, who was playing in his fifth quarterfinal of both the season and his budding career.

In search of his sixth semifinal, Sinner came in 7-1 against Frenchmen this year with his only loss coming against Rinderknech, 6-7 (7), 6-2, 7-5, on clay last May in Lyon. This time, though, it was all Sinner as the Italian hit all the right shots en route to a 6-4, 6-2 victory in an hour and 18 minutes.

Sinner strung together four aces, won 78 percent (35 of 45) of his service points and was broken just once. Meanwhile, Sinner broke his opponent four times in nine opportunities and outpointed Rinderknech 60-41.

“I think I was very solid today,” Sinner said during his on-court TV interview. “I played against [Arthur] in Lyon and he is a very great player and he wants to hit the ball hard. I tried to stay solid and play deep So, I am very happy with the performance today.”

After three consecutive service breaks that left Sinner holding a 3-2 advantage at the start of the match, the two settled down and each held their own serve. Then,Sinner took a nasty tumble as he lost his balance trying to save Rinderknech’s game point at the end of the seventh game of the opening set. He seemed to favor his left ankle after he got up, which he twisted a little during the fall. However, Sinner soldiered on – later saying both in his on-court interview and in press that he was fine – and two games later at 5-4, found himself serving for the set. Rinderknech gained a couple of break points, but Sinner simply brushed both aside. After the second one, he pumped his right fist to show his satisfaction. Two points later, Sinner closed out the 48-minute opener 6-4 with some excellent ball striking coupled with some miscues by Rinderknech, who netted set point at the end of a six-shot rally.

Then, Sinner broke Rinderknech to start the second set and promptly consolidated the break to grab a quick 2-0 advantage. He extended his lead to 4-2 after losing just one point on his serve. It put pressure on Rinderknech to hold his own serve and find a way to break through against Sinner. Instead, the Italian found and took advantage of every angle he could and soon hit a powerful forehand cross-court winner to cap an eight-shot rally and set up break point. Sinner got the break on the next point as Rinderknech double-faulted away the game. With the match on his racquet, up a set and a double break, Sinner soon had match point, which he calmly and confidently earned with one last successful 10-shot rally. It was a very dazzling and polished performance by the No. 1 seed Sinner, who was all smiles and gave a thumbs-up sign to the crowd afterward.

“I am happy to be in the semifinals,” Sinner said. Asked about his next opponent, he said of Harris: “He has had a great season and he is once against trying to find a way through. He serves well, he moves well. Today, he played a wonderful match. So, it is going to be very exciting.”

Schwartzman nearly unbeatable on his serve against Nakashima

After No. 2 seed Diego Schwartzman beat wild card Andy Murray Thursday evening 6-4, 7-6 (6) in a tightly contested match – the first time the two veterans had faced each other in 11 years on Tour together – it advanced him into his seventh quarterfinal appearance of the season and third straight following San Diego and Indian Wells. In search of his second semifinal of the season and first since Buenos Aires on clay, where he won his only title of the year, Schwartzman faced an eager, young, big-hitting American in Brandon Nakashima for the first time.

The 20-year-old #NextGenATP rising star from San Diego, Calif., was into his third quarterfinal appearance of the season and aiming for his third semifinal. In back-to-back hard-court tournaments at Los Cabos and Atlanta back in July, Nakashima reached the final in both. He’s also in the hunt for a berth at the Next Gen Finals in Milan, currently residing in seventh place. So, he’s had a lot to play for this week in Antwerp.

While Schwartzman has always been known as one of the best returners on Tour, against Nakashima during his 6-4, 6-2 victory, it was his service game that was very impressive. He lost just two first-serve points and seven overall the entire match, finishing with an outstanding 93 percent efficiency (25 of 27) on his first serve.

“It was tough because we have never played before,” Schwartzman, 29, said during his on-court TV interview after securing the victory. “He is a big player, very young. He has reached two finals already this season. He is improving a lot and will be very tough to play in the future, so maybe better to play him now.”

At 5-2 and a game from advancing to Saturday’s semifinal round, Schwartzman promptly and with confidence served out the win. He closed out the one-hour and 33-minute victory showing tremendous skill on both sides of the net. The Argentine No. 1 simply never allowed Nakashima to get on track and he never faced a single break point.

“For me, the stats are very important,” Schwartzman said. “I am not coming to the court thinking I am going to hit 10 aces. I have to do everything. I have to work, run and think for every single point. The opponent is going to play every shot and when I am returning well, everything is better for me.”

Next, Schwartzman, twice a finalist in Antwerp in 2016 and 2017 as well as a semifinalist in 2018, will face No. 70 Jenson Brooksby of the United States on Saturday with hopes of playing in another title match. Brooksby took out No. 44 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain, 7-5, 6-0, in an hour and 43 minutes to reach his third semifinal of the season. Brooksby outpointed the Spaniard 78-59.

By reaching the European Open semifinals, Brooksby became the fifth singles player to qualify for the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Nov. 9-13. Before this year, the 20-year-old Brooksby had won just once on the ATP Tour. Now, he’s climbed from outside the Top 300 to a career-high No. 70.

First doubles final berth goes to French duo

No. 2 seeds Nicolas Mahut and Fabrice Martin, both of France, advanced to Sunday’s doubles final with a 7-6 (5), 6-2 win over Denys Molchanov of Ukraine and Aleksandr Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan. Mahut and Martin outpointed their opponents 72-60. They will face either No. 3 seeds Wesley Koolhof and Jean-Julien Rojer, both of the Netherlands, or wild cards Lloyd Harris of South Africa and Xavier Malisse of Belgium, who play in the other semifinal on Saturday after Harris’s singles semifinal.

Mahut, ranked fifth, and Martin, ranked 34th, are playing together for the second time this year and third time overall. Earlier this year, the reached the quarterfinals at Winston-Salem. This week in Antwerp, the Frenchmen have won three straight without dropping any sets.

In the FedEx ATP Doubles Race To Turin, Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France are in fourth place in the doubles team rankings and have already clinched a berth for the Nov. 14-21 year-end event.

Friday’s European Open results

Saturday’s European Open order of play

By the numbers

Following two impressive wins to reach the Antwerp semifinals, Jannik Sinner is in 11th place with 2,685 points in the FedEx ATP Race To Turin. He’s 270 points behind ninth-place Hubert Hurkacz, who has 2,955 points.

Hurkacz currently owns the final qualification berth with eighth-place Rafael Nadal sidelined for the remainder of the 2021 season. Cameron Norrie is one place ahead of Sinner in 10th place with 2,795 points after winning the ATP Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells last Sunday.

“Quotable …”

“Here in Antwerp I am always feeling good, so being back in the semifinals I am very happy. I really love the city and the people here, I have confidence on this court.”

– No. 2 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, a two-time finalist at the European Open.