Alcaraz Shows Why He’s Top Seed At Next Gen ATP Finals

Carlos Alcaraz (photo: ATP Tour video)

MILAN/WASHINGTON, November 9, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals got underway in Milan, Italy, Tuesday amid plenty of fanfare featuring the best and brightest of the ATP’s 21-and-under set. With top seeds Carlos Alcaraz of Spain and Sebastian Korda of the United States headlining this year’s field of eight, the tournament in its brief history has proven to be a springboard for future success. One need only look back at the last two times champions were crowned, in 2018 and 2019, to understand this with Stefanos Tsitsipas and Jannik Sinner. Both have both gone on to become Top 10-caliber players. There’s no reason why this year’s champion can’t do the same.

After soaring through the FedEx ATP Rankings from No. 141 to No. 32 this season – including his first Top 10 victory over World No. 3 Tsitsipas and capturing his first ATP Tour title at Umag – Alcaraz began his Group A play against Denmark’s 109th-ranked Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune and won convincingly 4-3 (6), 4-2, 4-0 in 75 minutes.

Alcaraz, who hit big and and crushed winners against Rune from both his forehand and backhand sides in their first head-to-head meeting, won the final seven games of the match.

The 18-year-old Danish rising star, who made his Grand Slam debut at the US Open as a qualifier and won a set off top seed Novak Djokovic, arrived fresh off winning a Challenger title over the weekend at Bergamo, Italy, and earlier in the year won Challenger titles at Biella, San Marino and Verona. However, after the first set, Rune proved no match for Alcaraz, who lost just three points during the final set.

“I am feeling comfortable and have a lot of confidence with myself,” Alcaraz said during a pre-tournament press conference. “It has been a brilliant year and I hope to show a good level here at the Net Gen. Playing against the young guys like me with the different conditions, best of five sets, four games [is nice]. I am excited to play.”

After Alcaraz hit nine aces and 27 winners to 16 unforced errors compared to Rune’s 14 winners and 14 unforced errors, he admitted during his on-court interview that he thought it was a really tough match despite the final score.

“The first set was so close,” Alcaraz said. “He had the chance to win the set and I think it was a great match. Both of us played really well. I tried to stay calm, this is new for me. I was really nervous at the beginning but I tried to be calm.”

Besides winning 88 percent (28 of 32) of his first-serve points, Alcaraz was impressive coming into the net in a defensive posture, where he won 12 of 16 exchanges. He outpointed Rune 61-41 overall.

“To do many different things on court is very important,” Alcaraz said. “I am trying to go to the net and play aggressively in the important moments and stay calm and I am trying to do this every match.”

Nakashima wins opener against Cerundolo

Joining Alcaraz in the Group A win column was 63rd-ranked Brandon Nakashima of the United States, who defeated No. 91 Juan Manuel Cerundolo of Argentina, 4-1, 3-4 (3), 4-2, 4-0, in the opening match at the Allianz Cloud.

While the 19-year-old Cerundolo won his first ATP Tour tour-level title at the Cordoba Open in February and won three ATP Challenger Tour events en route to his arrival in Milan, Tuesday was his first hard court match in 397 days, since October 2020 at an ITF event in Setabul, Portugal. In fact, he hadn’t played an indoor match of any kind all year. Cerundolo’s bonafides have been on clay, where he’s been quite at home and comfortable.

Following an initial adjustment period, in which Nakashima jumped out to a 3-0 lead and won the opening set 4-1, Cerundolo gave an overall favorable impression. However, it wasn’t enough against the more experienced hard-court player Nakashima, who won his second ATP Challenger Tour title of the season in Brest, France in October and has now strung together wins in 10 of his last 11 matches. Earlier in the season, Nakashima reached back-to-back title matches on hard courts in Los Cabos and Atlanta on the ATP Tour. More recently, he reached the quarterfinals at Antwerp.

“It was super fun out here,” Nakashima, 20, said during his on-court interview afterward. “The atmosphere was electric right from the beginning. It is an amazing feeling playing in front of these fans. I am really happy with how I played in front of all these fans. [It was important] to stay there mentally. A lot of crucial points out there with the no-Ad and then in the second set he kind of picked up his level and I had to battle.”

Nakashima, who outpointed Cerundolo 77-48, finished with 27 winners to 26 unforced errors, while his opponent mustered just 10 winners and committed 28 unforced errors.

Alcaraz and Nakashima will face each other in Wednesday’s second day of Group A play, while Rune and Cerundolo will oppose each other.

Korda stays calm, beats Gaston in five sets

In this initial meeting of 21-year-olds, France’s No. 67 Hugo Gaston arrived just days after his his quarterfinal showing at the Rolex Paris Masters boosted him into the Top 100 for the first time. Meanwhile, Korda’s body of work included winning his first ATP Tour title in Parma, reaching the Delray Beach Open finals and advancing to the quarterfinals at the Miami Open.

While it initially looked like Gaston would win easily, by mid-match Korda gained his footing. The longer the contest lasted the calmer he got and remained. The American prevailed in the end with a 3-4 (2), 3-4 (6), 4-0, 4-3 (3), 4-0 victory.

Next, Korda will play Sebastian Baez of Argentina, a five-time titlist this year on the ATP Challenger Tour circuit, who won Tuesday evening’s final match over No. 58 Lorenzo Musetti of Italy, 4-1, 4-1, 3-4 (5), 4-3 (5), in an hour and 39 minutes. It was the 111th-ranked Baez’s first tour-level hard court match.

The lefty Gaston won back-to-back tie breaks against Korda to open their match. Displaying a lovely mixture of speed and spin, artistry and angles, he showed a flair for the dramatic and it worked against the taller, more angular Korda. Soon, the American son of Czech great Petr Korda re-focused and won eight of 10 service points – including his eighth ace on set point – and added five winners to capture the third set 4-0.

While Korda remained alive into the fourth set, with Gaston ahead 3-2, he faced match point on his serve at 40-all. However, the 21-year-old from Bradenton, Fla. came up with the right answer and his 10th ace rescued him from an opening-match upset. So, into their third tie-breaker, Korda came through – winning the biggest points – and sent the match to a deciding fifth set by winning the tie break 7-3. He amassed 12 winners during the 30-minute set.

With the match going the distance, Korda immediately held and became more aggressive in scoring points on his returns. Approaching the two-hour mark, Korda accelerated his pace and broke Gaston in his first service game. He won a deciding point with an adroit, cross-court volley winner off a drop shot from Gaston, reacting perfectly. Then, Korda consolidated the break with an easy hold to grab a commanding 3-0 lead. With one final chance to stay alive, the Frenchman went ahead 30-0 on his serve. However, Korda pulled out his first victory in Group B play by winning the final four points of the two-hour and two-minute match.

Korda struck 39 winners to 31 unforced errors and won 17 of 30 net points. He outpointed Gaston 104-88 by taking advantage of 30 unforced errors by his opponent. Korda became the second player in tournament history to rally from two sets down, joining Croatia’s Borna Coric, who accomplished the feat in round-robin action against Karen Khachanov of Russia in 2017.

Asked during his post-match interview how he turned around the match, Korda said: “I just stayed calm and kept thinking of what I could do better. I didn’t really play well tactically in the first two sets, but I figured out a few things during the tie-breaker. I think that just really helped me going toward the finish line.

“I just kept going to the same spot every single time and was taking advantage of the shorter balls and coming in. On my serve I was serving in the same spot instead of opening up the court,” Korda added. “The biggest thing was I started to use my forehand down the line more.”

Tuesday’s Next Gen ATP Finals results

Wednesday’s Next Gen ATP Finals order of play

“Quotable …”

“First, I think of the food, which is amazing. The wallpaper on my phone is Diego Maradona, who was a Napoli legend. Whenever I think of Italy, I remember good and beautiful things. It’s a country I feel comfortable in, I like the language and I would love to learn it. It’s a language that’s very canchero [cool], as we say [in Argentina]. I really enjoy Italy and I also saw some of Rome. I really liked it a lot.”

Sebastian Baez of Argentina, on what he thinks of when he thinks about Italy.