Korda, Alcaraz Make Their Moves In Milan

Sebastian Korda (photo: ATP Tour video)

MILAN/WASHINGTON, November 10, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The second day of the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan saw the first-day winners face off against each other – Brandon Nakashima of the United States and Carlos Alcaraz of Spain in Group A during the day and Sebastian Korda of the United States and Sebastian Baez of Argentina from Group B in the evening.

Each came in looking to secure a Friday semifinal berth win a second consecutive win. Alcaraz succeeded with a straight-set win over Nakashima while Korda closed in on advancing with a convincing victory against Baez. However, after Lorenzo Musetti of Italy pulled out a five-set victory against Hugo Gaston of France in the final match of the day, it meant Korda will have to wait another day to determine his fate.

Alcaraz’s athleticism serves him well

Both Alcaraz and Nakashima, who were featured during the afternoon session at the Allianz Cloud, have climbed more than 100 spots from last year into the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings and each came into Milan at a career-high No. 32 and No. 63, respectively.

The No. 1 seed Alcaraz advanced to a semifinal berth by winning the big points well – especially during the first and third-set tie breaks – as he beat Nakashima, 4-3 (4), 4-1, 4-3 (4), in an hour and 26 minutes.

After securing the first set in a tie break, 7-4, Alcaraz took strong hold of the match by breaking Nakashima with his athleticism to open a 3-0 lead in the second set. He closed out the set 4-1 on his serve by winning a 12-shot rally on the deciding point. With three aces, six winners and a 90-percent efficiency rate on winning points on his first serve during the set, Alcaraz was well on his way against Nakashima.

The third set was decided by a tie break after Alcaraz held his serve at love to level the score at 3-all after being broken ahead 2-1 earlier. In the tie break, Alcaraz jumped out to a 3-0 advantage and led 4-2 as the two changed ends. Like the first-set tie break, Alcaraz went on to capture it 7-4 and won the match in straight sets.

“I’m really happy with the level I’m playing at,” Alcaraz said during his post-match, on-court interview. “I am playing good matches. I hope to play the semifinal at this level.”

Alcaraz fired 10 aces and hit 25 winners to 16 unforced errors. He outpointed Nakashima 64-51, which included winning 47 points on his serve. Nakashima was able to muster just eight winners and committed 19 unforced errors.

“The serve is really important on an indoor hard court,” Alcaraz said. “I’m trying to improve the serve for my game.”

Battle of the Sebastians goes to Korda

In the evening session, the battle of the Sebastians – as in Korda and Baez – took place for the second time in Milan. In their only other meeting in 2017, Baez won 6-2, 7-6 in the third round of the Italian Juniors. Both have made great strides in four years – both in improving their overall games as well as their rankings – and this time it was Korda’s turn to shine. He dominated the one-hour and 14-minute match and won 4-3 (3), 4-2, 4-2, thanks to his flat and powerful groundstrokes.

“I trusted my game and the way I am playing right now and my body,” Korda said during his on-court interview following his win over Baez. “Physically I am doing really well, so all things were good today.”

During their opening victories Tuesday, the No. 2 seed Korda rallied from two sets downs – becoming just the second player in the tournament’s four-year history to do so – and saved a match point in his five-set win over Gaston. Meanwhile, the No. 111 Baez defeated Musetti in four sets and became the first South American to win a match in tournament in the Next Gen ATP Finals. It was also his tour-level victory on hard courts. This time, after a slow start, the 39th-ranked Korda jumped ahead two-sets-to-none and was able to dictate matters.

In the beginning Baez jumped ahead 3-1 after breaking Korda in the fourth game while taking advantage of seven unforced errors by the American 21-year-old. The Argentine 20-year-old gained a deciding point with a bend-it-like-Beckham forehand winner past Korda. However, Korda’s resilience paid off and he broke back. Then, Korda held for 3-all to force a tie break, which he won 7-3 with his eighth winner of the set.

Korda continued to take advantage of his opportunities and broke Baez in the sixth game to win the second set 4-2. With a two-sets-to-none lead, Korda continued to apply the pressure to Baez. In addition to winning points from the baseline, he also won by playing serve and volley, which kept Baez off balance.

Next, on serve through the first four games of the third set, Korda honed in on a straight-set victory by holding serve for a 3-2 lead. Then, Baez earned a game point at 40-30, but Korda countered with a deciding point, which was also a match point, too, after Baez hit a long forehand return. Finally, Korda put the match away on his first match-point opportunity to go 2-0 in Group B.

“It was very tricky at the beginning,” Korda added. “I came out with the wrong tactic as he was loving the pace I was giving him. I adapted really well, changed my game up as I started to come to the net more and sliced more. That was a decision I made. I am really happy with the way I played.”

Rune keeps semifinals hopes alive

First-day losers – Juan Manuel Cerundolo of Argentina and Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune of Denmark in Group A and Gaston and Musetti from Group B – played each other to keep from being eliminated.

Cerundolo and Rune met for the first time in the opening match Wednesday. Cerundolo made the second-biggest jump in the Top 100 from last year, climbing 250 places from No. 341 to No. 91, while Rune came in at a career-high No. 109 and he’s made the biggest ranking jump from last year (402 spots) of anyone in Milan.

Rune kept his semifinal hopes alive after winning 4-1, 4-2, 1-4, 4-1 in an hour and 16 minutes to level his win-loss record at 1-1. After losing to Alcaraz in the opening day, he played an aggressive baseline game against the Argentine. After jumping ahead 3-0 in the opening set, except for a third-set wobble, Rune controlled the match and outpointed Cerundolo 67-51.

“I am very pleased,” Rune said during his on-court interview. “Yesterday was not easy because Carlos played very well and it was a high level. .It is never easy when you play well and lose the first two sets. I learned a lot and took all the good things and experience into the match today. I played aggressively and came into the net. So, I was really pleased.

“In the third set, I lost focus totally on my service games,” added Rune, who will face Alcaraz Thursday. “I was close to breaking him at 1-1 and I played too passive, and after that, I struggled mentally. Then, I tried to regroup as fast as possible and tried to play similar to the first two sets. I found a way and it is good to have a victory before tomorrow.”

Musetti pulls out a thriller against Gaston

Musetti and Gaston are certainly no strangers, having met for the second time in 10 days. Gaston won their last head-to-head, in the final round of qualifying at the Rolex Paris Masters. The Frenchman went on to reach his first ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinal to break into the Top 100. Additionally, Musetti and Gaston played twice as juniors in 2018. Gaston won in straight sets at the ITF Junior Mastrs in Chengdu, China, and Musetti prevailed in three sets in the third round of Wimbledon.

This time, under the pressure of wanting to do well in his home country, Musetti held off Gaston, 4-3 (4), 4-3 (6), 2-4, 3-4 (7), 4-2, with a raucous crowd cheering him on. The victory, which improved his Group B win-loss record to 1-1, kept his hopes of qualifying for the semifinal round alive. It was the longest match of the day – and in tournament history – at two hours and 33 minutes.

“It was tough physically as we ran a lot,” Musetti said after his victory. “We had some really, really long and great rallies at at the end. I was empty. My hole in my stomach finally went away and I laid down to rest and enjoy the moment.”

Musetti won with grit and guile while he fended off Gaston, who came back from two sets down with a variety of drop shots and topspin lobs as well as changes of direction and pace. On this night, as New York Times tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey wrote on Twitter, “Italian art > French art.”

Despite squandering a couple of match points during the fourth-set tie break, the 19-year-old Italian Musetti fought back and won on his third match point opportunity, in the fifth set, on a deciding point. It came after Gaston hit the seventh shot of the final rally long. Musetti, who hit 11 aces and outpointed Gaston 111-106, fell to the ground in celebration. The two competitors shared a warm and friendly embrace at the net after it was all over.

“I am really tired right now because I played really late yesterday,” Musetti said. “I recovered as I had today to rest and prepare for this match. Hugo came back with some really great tennis and he showed this last week in Paris. I took revenge on him because I lost against him in the last round of qualifying. It was a great battle, but I am really proud of this win.”

Wednesday’s Next Gen ATP Finals results

Thursday’s Next Gen ATP Finals order of play

Looking ahead to Thursday

In Group A, Alcaraz (2-0), who has already clinched a semifinal berth, will play Cerundolo (0-2), who has already been eliminated. Nakashima and Rune, both 1-1, will battle for the other semifinal berth from this group.

In Group B, Korda (2-0) will play Musetti (1-1), while Baez (1-1) will face Gaston (0-2). Korda controls his own destiny with a win over Musetti. However, there are a number of different scenarios in play on Thursday:

• If Korda defeats Musetti and Gaston defeats Baez, Korda will win the group and Gaston will qualify as the No. 2.

• If Korda defeats Musetti and Baez defeats Gaston, Korda will win the group and Baez will qualify as the No. 2.

• If Musetti defeats Korda and Gaston defeats Baez, Musetti will win the group and Korda will qualify as the No. 2.

• If Musetti defeats Korda in three or four sets and Baez defeats Gaston in three sets, Baez will win the group and Musetti will qualify as the No. 2.

• If Musetti defeats Korda in five sets and Baez defeats Gaston, Korda will win the group and Baez will qualify as the No. 2.

• If Musetti defeats Korda in three sets and Baez defeats Gaston in four or five sets, Musetti will win the group and Korda will qualify as the No. 2.

• If Musetti defeats Korda in four sets and Baez defeats Gaston in four or five sets, Korda will win the group and Baez will qualify as the No. 2.

By the numbers

Juan Manuel Cerundolo of Argentina won three ATP Challenger Tour titles this season, all on clay. He’s playing in his first career ATP Tour tour-level hard court tournament this week.

• At age 20, Brandon Nakashima of the United States is the youngest of the 13 American men in the ATP Top 100.

“Quotable …”

“I’ve watched previous editions and I know that great player shave come here that are now in Turin or are among the best in the world. To me, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will join them there. But it’s a tournament that’s a bonus and an experience that’ll be worth having in the future. I was impressed with [Stefanos] Tsitsipas and [Andrey] Rublev, for example. I think their rise was fantastic. Players like that do grab your attention. At the moment, they are among the best in the world and it’s true that they have had the experience of playing in this tournament. But I’m purely focused on my own journey. I know that one tournament isn’t going to change my career.”

Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, on how seeing other young players do well motivates him.