Perseverance Pays Off For Baez, Reaches Estoril Final

Sebastian Baez (photo: Millennium Estoril Open)

ESTORIL/WASHINGTON, April 30, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Perseverance and a great work ethic has rewarded Argentina’s Sebastian Baez handsomely this week at the ATP 250 Millennium Estoril Open in this Portuguese Riviera setting.

On Saturday, the 59th-ranked Baez faced a former Estoril champion for the third time this week, after defeating 2018 champion João Sousa of Portugal in the first round and 2015 champion Richard Gasquet of France in Friday’s quarterfinal round. In his only other ATP tour-level semifinal at Santiago earlier this year, Baez beat Alberto Ramos-Vinolas. As it so happened, the defending champion Ramos-Vinolas of Spain, ranked 31st, was Baez’s opponent in this semifinal, played on red clay under a sunny, cloudless blue sky with temperatures peaking at 24º Celsius.

Writing on the camera lens after each of his victories, “Why not me?” and adding a question mark after each new win has been like a mantra for the 5-foot-7-inch, 21-year-old Argentine from Buenos Aires with the backwards cap – and it worked, again, against Ramos-Vinolas. After letting two match points slip away during a second-set tie-break, it was all one-way traffic for the diminutive Argentine in the final set. Baez won 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-0 in two hours and 34 minutes to reach his second ATP tour-level title match this season. Both have been on red clay.

“We know each other a lot; we’ve played three times this year,” Baez said of his head-to-head with Ramos-Vinolas, during his on-court interview. “All of the matches were so tough, very close. I’m happy for the win today.

“I had chances in the tie-break. Now, I hope to do my best tomorrow. It will be another difficult match.”

Baez, who will break into the ATP Top 50 next week, will play Frances Tiafoe of the United States in Sunday’s final at Clube de Tenis do Estoril.

Baez raced to an impressive 3-0 advantage in the opening set, winning points consistently on his first serve while also getting out of a few jams after saving a couple of early break points. Baez continued to win at will with forehand, occasionally dancing around his backhand, and increased his lead to 4-1. Then, he saved three more break points during a 14-point endurance contest by maintaining his level to hold for 5-2. Next, Ramos-Vinolas saved a couple of set points on his serve as held tough to hold. However, Baez closed out the 49-minute first set at love after Ramos-Vinolas sailed a forehand return long.

Soon, Ramos-Vinolas dug in and fended off four break points during a nine-deuce, 14-minute third game to hold for 2-1. Then, Baez followed with a very comfortable two-minute hold for 2-all. The two combatants stayed on serve the remainder of the set – never giving up too much – which set up a second-set tie-break as the match trickled past the two-hour mark.

Quickly, Baez went a double mini-break down as Ramos-Vinolas began to come alive. The Spaniard broke for the third straight time to increase his lead to 5-1 before Baez righted matters and got two of the mini-breaks back bookended by a couple of holds to level the score at 5-all. He gained a match point at 6-5 with another hold after Ramos-Vinolas netted a fourth-shot forehand but was unable to close it out. Then, Baez gained a second match point at 7-6, the first on his serve, but hit a wide return and it was 7-all. Finally, Ramos-Vinolas garnered the next two points and won the tie-break 9-7 on his serve to force a decider.

Like their previous two meetings this season, this one would go the distance, too. With plenty of resolve and determination to overcome his earlier disappointment, Baez converted his third break point to go up 2-0 early in the third set. Baez consolidated the break to push ahead 3-0 as the look of frustration set in with Ramos-Vinolas and added to the Spaniard’s misery when he gained a double-break lead in the next game to increase the score to 4-0. Soon, with a hold at 30, the Argentine’s lead had bumped up to 5-0 as Ramos-Vinolas simply was unable to sustain his second-set level. It was over soon as Baez quickly gained a match point and closed out the victory at love with a solid winner.

Baez won 74 percent (50 of 68) of his first-serve points, which included three aces. He saved all five of the break points he faced, none coming after the first set, and converted four of 16. Baez outpointed Ramos-Vinolas 113-89.

This time, there would be no back-to-back Estoril finals for the Ramos Vinolas as Baez improved to 3-0 lifetime against the 34-year-old Spanish left-hander.

Tiafoe wins all-American battle against Korda

In the second semifinal, which featured an all-American lineup of No. 8 seed Sebastian Korda and No. 5 seed Tiafoe, coming in it had been Korda’s week to shine – and for a while, it appeared he would beat the 29th-ranked Tiafoe in straight sets. Instead, he lost. Tiafoe fought off three second-set match points and went on to beat the 37th-ranked Korda, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, in two hours and 55 minutes, to reach his second Estoril title match following his 2018 run to the final.

Consider this: Korda had swept six sets and gone 36-16 in games this week until the semifinal. He had improved to 3-5 against Top-10 competition after defeating World No. 10 and top seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, 6-2, 6-2, Friday evening. He also came into the Estoril semifinal owning a 2-0 win-loss record in tour-level semifinals (at Delray Beach and Parma, both in 2021). However, it all went for naught.

After winning the opening set, Korda found himself comfortably ahead in the second. Trailing 5-2, Tiafoe saved his first match point during a 16-point marathon eighth game. Then, two games later, Tiafoe saved two more match points on his serve in a lengthy 14-point game. He went on to dominate Korda in the tie-break to pull out the second set and extend the match to a decider.

Next, after Tiafoe raced to a 3-0 lead thanks to an early break of his opponent, Korda broke back in the seventh game to get back on serve. He immediately consolidated the break to level the set. Then, after Tiafoe held for 5-4, he immediately gained his own match point in a big change of momentum and won at love after Korda sent a fifth shot well past the baseline. Tiafoe had pulled out a remarkable comeback victory to reach his fourth career tour-level final and first since Vienna last year. It was the fourth time this season that Tiafoe had come back to win after losing the first set.

Tiafoe, who improved to 10-3 lifetime in matches played in Estoril, finished with eight aces and saved nine of the 14 break points he faced. He outpointed Korda 120-114.

“Today was crazy,” Tiafoe said during a spirited and charged on-court interview. “I was super down and out. I was hoping it wouldn’t end today – this amazing run. I stuck with it.” Then, addressing the crowd, Tiafoe said: “You guys really stayed behind me. … I kept going and it’s all because of you guys.”

Asked about facing Baez in Sunday’s final, Tiafoe said: “He’s very good, he’s young. He’s going to – obviously – go for it and play his best tennis, and so am I.

“I’m going to push one last time and try to win this thing. I couldn’t do it in 2018. [Sunday] I have one plan and one plan only and I’m going to win it.”

Portugal’s Borges and Cabral make Estoril history

Portuguese wild cards Nuno Borges and Francisco Cabral upset No. 1 seeds Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Michael Venus of New Zealand, 6-2, 6-4, to advance to Sunday’s doubles final. By winning, Borges and Cabral have become the first Portuguese doubles pair to reach the Estoril final.

Borges and Cabral combined to win 72 percent (33 of 46) of their first-serve points, won half (30 of 60) of their return points and saved the only break point they faced. They outpointed Murray and Venus 61-44 during the 72-minute semifinal match.

The victory was the 11th straight Borges and Cabral, which includes winning back-to-back ATP Challenger Tour titles in Oeiras, Portugal earlier this season.

Next, Borges and Cabral will face unseeded Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina and Andre Goransson of Sweden, who took out No. 4 seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Ben McLachlan of Japan, 2-6, 7-6 (7), 10-6.

Saturday’s Millennium Estoril Open results

Sunday’s Millennium Estoril order of play

By the numbers

At age 34, Albert Ramos-Vinolas is the second-oldest semifinalist in the seven-year tournament history behind David Ferrer, 35, in 2017. He’s already the tournament’s oldest champion at age 33 in 2021.