Steady, Poised Nakashima Advances To Milan Last Four

Brandon Nakashima (photo: ATP Tour video)

MILAN/WASHINGTON, November 11, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As Day Three of the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals unfolded in Milan’s Allianz Cloud Thursday, the difference between scenarios in Groups A and B were like the difference between simple and complicated. With three semifinal berths to be decided, it was anyone’s guess how the drama would play itself out.

In Group A, impeccable No. 1 seed Carlos Alcaraz of Spain had already clinched a semifinal berth following a pair of straight-set victories over No. 109 Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune of Denmark and No. 63 Brandon Nakashima of the United States. Meanwhile, the winner of the Rune-Nakashima match would advance with Alcaraz to the semifinals on Friday. It would turn out to be the steady and poised Nakashima, who prevailed in four sets.

However, in Group B, all four players – No. 2 seed Sebastian Korda of the United States, Sebastian Baez of Argentina, Lorenzo Musetti of Italy and Hugo Gaston of France – remained in contention for two semifinal berths. Korda was in the strongest position by virtue of his previous victories over No. 67 Gaston and No. 111 Baez. If the 39th-ranked Korda could win at least two sets against No. 58 Musetti, he would move on to the semifinal round. He did just that and more.

While most if not all Italian fans wouldn’t be cheering for Korda, he could count on the support of Gaston. That’s because the Frenchman, despite beginning the day at 0-2, could clinch the other semifinal berth in Group B if he defeated Baez and Korda beat Musetti. Baez and Musetti, both 1-1, needed to win their respective matches to have any chance of advancing. As it happened, Baez won (which eliminated Gaston) and Korda defeated Musetti to clinch the final berth.

On Friday, the top-seeded Alcaraz will play No. 6 seed Baez and the second-seeded Korda will oppose No. 4 seed Nakashima. The semifinal winners will play for the Next Gen ATP Finals title on Saturday evening.

Alcaraz youngest since Nadal to compile 30-win season

With the pressure off of the 32nd-ranked Alcaraz as he faced No. 91 Juan Manuel Cerundolo of Argentina, who came into the final day of group play 0-2 in both his indoor and hard-court debut on the ATP Tour, the 18-year-old Spaniard sought his third win of the week and 30th of the season. He did just that.

Alcaraz, who was biding to become the youngest player to earn 30 wins in a season since Rafael Nadal at age 18 went 30-17 in 2004, defeated Cerundolo, 4-0, 4-1, 2-4, 4-3 (3), in 84 minutes. While it was the first set Alcaraz dropped this week, he finished group play with an unblemished 3-0 win-loss record.

“I am very happy to get to the semifinals,” Alcaraz said during his on-court interview. “It is so important and to be able to to play in the semifinals here is amazing.”

Alacaraz struck 25 winners to 28 unforced errors, won 20 of 26 net points, saved nine of 10 break points he faced and outpointed Cerundolo 70-59. The 19-year-old Argentine finished with 12 winners but committed 20 unforced errors.

“I had to be really focused on my serve, make first serves and play aggressive on big points,” said Alcaraz, who won 74 percent of his first-serve points. “Making first serves helped me. It is something I am trying to add to my game. The most important points is when you want the first serves.”

After advancing first from Group A, Alcaraz will play Baez, the Group B runner up in Friday’s semifinal round. “To play these kinds of matches and this level, I am really glad. I am playing really, really well and feel very comfortable in Milan,” he said. “I want to end the year with a title.”

Nakashima beats Rune in win-or-go-home showdown

Both Rune and Nakashima knew the importance of their match. It was simple: win it or go home. Both arrived with identical 1-1 win-loss records, each having beaten Cerundolo while losing to Alcaraz. With plenty of incentive riding on the outcome, Nakashima, 20, proved to be the steadier player – especially with the match on the line. The San Diego, Calif. native kept his emotions in check and rallied to win 3-4 (3), 4-1, 4-1, 4-3 (1) in an hour and 38 minutes. It was his 11th victory in his last 13 matches.

Nakashima was asked during his on-court interview how it felt to advance out of group play. “It feels great,” he said. “It was a really tough match right from the beginning, but I tried to stay focused on one point at a time and tried to play to my strengths out there to get the win.”

At first, the 18-year-old Rune came out strong in the beginning and won the first set in a tie break without dropping any points on his first serve. However, he became a bit unraveled and sloppy in the second set and was broken twice as Nakashima improved and won many of the shorter rally points. Then, Nakashima put away the third set as well as he continued to be the steadier of the two players while Rune’s unforced error count continued to climb.

With a two-sets-to-one lead, Nakashima needed to only win one more set but Rune wasn’t ready to concede. Instead, he moved out to a 2-0 lead in the fourth set before Nakashima got the break back. Then, in a fourth-set tie break, Nakashima jumped ahead 3-0, increased it to 6-1 as the unforced errors piled up for Rune, and won it on his first match point with a nifty winner – his fourth from his backhand side and 20th overall.

“I think after the first set the nerves started to settle and I started to swing a little bit more freely and started to find my first serve a little bit more,” Nakashima said. “Just a combination of things, so I am happy to close it out in the end.”

Nakashima finished with 20 winners to 20 unforced errors, while Rune managed 24 winners but committed 35 unforced errors. Nakashima, who won 80 percent of his first-serve points and converted six of eight break-point opportunities, outpointed Rune 80-62.

Baez beats Gaston to secure semifinal berth

As the evening session got under way, Baez gave notice from the start that he was in it to win it against Gaston – and he did just that. Pretty good for someone who hadn’t played a tour-level hard-court match until arriving in Milan. The 20-year-old Baez became the first South American player in the tournament’s history to reach the semifinals following his 4-3 (2), 4-2, 4-2 victory over Gaston.

With advancement on the line, Baez raised the level of his game in the biggest moments. He very assuredly opened up a two-sets-to-none lead after win the first set in a tie break, then hit 12 winners to just one unforced error after breaking Gaston’s serve in the third game to capture the second set. Later, Baez broke the 21-year-old Gaston for the fourth time in the match to push ahead 2-1, needing to win just two more games to book his reservation in the semifinals.

Baez consolidated the break for a 3-1 advantage as the match approached an hour. Finally, an easy hold by Gaston, the Argentine confidently closed out the 64-minute victory and broke out a big smile to celebrate his accomplishment.

“I feel great,” Baez said during his on-court interview. “It is not just for me, but my team as well. I am happy to have won this match, but we now need to think ahead to the next match. I think the key was to stay aggressive and concentrate all the time because Gaston is a dangerous player. So, I am happy I did that.”

Baez hit 27 winners to 15 unforced errors and outpointed Gaston 66-46. The Frenchman managed just nine winners and committed 17 unforced errors. Baez, who won five ATP Challenger Tour tournaments this year on clay, played some of his best tennis in winning 36 points in rallies under five shots. He won 78 percent of his first-serve points and converted four of 12 break points.

Korda controls his destiny and gets the job done

Korda, 20, came into the evening’s final match knowing he controlled his own destiny. If he beat the 19-year-old Musetti, he would advance to the semifinal round. Even if he lost, if the match went five sets, he would still advance. With those scenarios in play following Baez’s straight-set elimination of Gaston, Korda promptly won the first two sets without much of a tussle and then kept the pressure on Musetti and won in straight sets, 4-2, 4-3 (4), 4-2, in an hour and seven minutes. It was Korda’s 30th tour-level win of the season and he finished on top of Group B with a 3-0 win-loss record.

From the start, Korda broke Musetti in the third game of the match to go ahead and won the first set behind nine winners, all while going a perfect 10 for 10 on his first-serve points. Next, he won the second set in a tie-break, 7-4, which clinched his berth in the semifinals as the match reached the 49-minute mark. Korda’s forehand was his weapon of choice and he struck eight winners and controlled the net as well throughout the second set.

As soon as Musetti lost the tie-break, the look on his face spoke volumes. It was one of frustration. In the final set, Korda wasted little time or effort on his service games and lost just one point on serve. Finally, ahead 3-2, he closed out the victory on Musetti’s serve. It came on his second match-point opportunity after Musetti netted a forehand to kill a three-shot rally.

Not surprisingly, the final stats heavily favored Korda. He won 90 percent of his first-serve points – losing just six points overall on his serve – struck 21 winners and made just nine unforced errors. By contrast, Musetti mustered just eight winners and committed 14 unforced errors. Korda controlled play around the net, winning 10 of 13 net points and he outpointed his opponent 60-40.

“It was a great match,” Korda said during his on-court interview. “I took my chances when I had them, especially on the break points and the deciding points. I was playing really well. I’m really happy with the way I played today.

“The serve was probably one of the best things tonight and I returned pretty well also. On the big points in the tie-break I played really well, so I used that momentum throughout the whole match.”

On Friday, Korda will face Nakashima for the first time in a semifinal match between the current fourth-ranked and 10th-ranked American men.

“I have never played Brandon before,” Korda said. “I have practiced with him a bunch of times. It is going to be a new experience for me and for him. Hopefully we can play some good tennis and put on a good show for everybody.”

Thursday’s Next Gen ATP Finals results

Friday’s Next Gen ATP Finals order of play

By the numbers

How much of a creature of clay is Juan Manuel Cerundolo? Consider this: The 19-year-old World No. 91 was making his indoor and hard-court debut on the ATP Tour this week in Milan. Until Tuesday, he had played 74 matches this season while splitting his time between the ATP Tour and ATP Challenger Tour– all on clay and all outdoors. The last time Cerundolo played an indoor hard-court match of any kind before this week was in 2020 at Ann Arbor, Mich., where he lost to Patrick Kypson in three sets.

“Quotable …”

• “Milan is the city center in Europe for fashion. It is a business, it is really technologically [advanced], investing a lot of money in future things and big events. I think Rome and Milan are the biggest cities in Italy. Rome is more historic and Milan is more so the new city, the future. We are the Next Gen and the future.”

Lorenzo Musetti of Italy on what he thinks of when he thinks of the city of Milan.

“The pasta and the pizza. May favorite is margarita pizza, simple but really good. When I’m at tournaments, I don’t eat it because I have to look after myself and follow a competition diet. But it really is wonderful being able to enjoy it from title to time.”

Juan Manuel Cerundolo of Argentina on what his favorite Italian food is.