Sinner Is The Toast of Turin, Tops Group And Moves Into Semifinals

Jannik Sinner (photo: Giampiero Sposito/FITP)

TURIN/WASHINGTON, November 17, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

Italy’s favorite son, World No. 4 Jannik Sinner, clinched his spot in the Nitto ATP Finals last four in Turin on Thursday before playing a single point. When he walked onto Center Court at the Pala Alpitour to a standing ovation to face No. 8 Holger Rune of Denmark in his third round-robin match in the Green Group at 9 o’clock sharp, his position for the weekend was secure, win or lose.

While the pressure was off the young, 22-year-old Italian, there was still plenty of joy in his game. By the end of their two-hour, 33-minute drama, it was Sinner waving his right index figure signifying victory and raising his fist in celebration of his 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 victory over the 20-year-old Danish star. He finished atop the Green Group at 3-0 while Rune dropped to 1-2.

Earlier in the day, after Hubert Hurkacz took the second set off Novak Djokovic during their afternoon match, it meant Sinner had become the first Italian to reach the semifinals of the Nitto ATP Finals in the 54-year history of the year-end tournament.

Defending champion and six-time tournament winner Djokovic eventually beat Hurkacz, 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-1, to remain alive pending the outcome of the Sinner-Rune match. The stakes in the evening tussle were simple: If Sinner beat Rune, Sinner and Djokovic would advance. If Rune prevailed, it’s Rune and Sinner.

As it happened, it’s Sinner and Djokovic (2-1) who will play on. Rune’s season is ended with a 44-24 win-lose record and one title at Munich.

“For me it was really important, resetting after the good win against Novak,” said Sinner, in his on-court interview. “I never won against [Rune], so I really tried my best. I started off really well. In the second, he served better, he moved better, so it was a much more even match. The third set could have gone his way. At 4-3 I saved a break point. It was a little bit of a roller coaster today, but obviously really happy and happy to be in the semis.”

Sinner is the fourth Italian player to compete in the Nitto ATP Finals dating back to its inception in 1970. However, he’s done what Adriano Panatta (1975), Corrado Barazzutti (1978) and Matteo Berrettini (2019 and 2021) were never able to do: Make it out of the group stage.

From the outset, it was a dream scene for Sinner and a nightmare for Rune, as the South Tyrolean achieved a double-break, 3-0 advantage with just 12 minutes elapsed. He was all hustle on the court, hitting his forehand groundstrokes effectively on the fast court and revealing nerves of steel. If there was any pressure, Sinner certainly wasn’t letting on.

After Sinner consolidated the break to increase his lead to 4-0, Rune finally got on the board with his first hold. However, he realized he had a big hill to climb and, maybe, not enough time or rope to catch up to Sinner. Also, Rune realized he couldn’t win with swagger alone.

Soon, Sinner closed out a near-flawless, 32-minute opening set by winning it 6-2. He dropped just four points on his serve, hit eight winners and made just three unforced errors. Sinner outpointed Rune 29-17.

As the second set came into focus, Sinner continued his mastery and made it a grind for his opponent. Most of Rune’s service games were long and Sinner made short work of his. By the time he held for 5-all, Sinner had dropped only three points on his first serve all match and saved the only break point he faced. However, Rune remained determined to win the set and force a decider.

His Ad-40 drop shot surprised everyone – most of all Sinner – and he held for 6-5. Then, he broke Sinner for the first time to win the set, after hitting a nifty, underhand lob winner coming into the net that sailed over Sinner’s head and landed just inside the baseline. By the time Sinner, who was dealing with a lower back twinge, made a stab at a return it was too late.

Thus, it was on to a third set after an hour and 34 minutes, plus coming after a 61-minute middle stanza. For the moment, the status of both Rune and Djokovic were hanging in the balance.

At 1-all in the final set, Rune endured a dramatic 13-minute, 18-point marathon game just to hold serve. There were six deuce points and Rune fought off two break points in the process. Later, it was 3-all and the outcome was still very much anyone’s guess. Rune kept the pressure on Sinner with his hot serving – 15 aces – and another easy hold made it 4-3. Then, he gained his first break point of the set after Sinner sailed a backhand wide.

However, Rune was unable to cash in on it. Sinner’s 10th ace followed by an unforced error enabled him to hold for 4-all. Sinner gained 0-40 in the next game with a forehand winner and, after Rune saved two break points, broke with a sensational backhand volley winner to push ahead at 5-4.

Finally, serving for the match at the two-and-a-half-hour mark, Sinner hit his 11th ace and, quickly, had match point at 40-30. On his second serve, he lit up the lively Turin crowd by winning the match – and capturing his 60th victory of the season – after Rune angled a fourth-shot forehand wide right. The celebration was on inside Pala Alpitour and Sinner was the toast of Turin.

“Obviously, he played very free. This match, he had absolutely nothing to lose. That probably put down his nerves a little bit. Who knows,” Rune said in his post-match press conference. “Again, there was obviously a lot of pressure on me in this match. I tried to handle it as well as I could. I was close, but not enough.”

Sinner was asked during his on-court interview with ATP Media just how important it was to him to win No. 60 – most for an Italian man in the Open Era – before a legion of Italian fans.

“It means for sure more doing it here in Italy, in Turin, a special place, special tournament,” said Sinner, who improved his win-loss record to 60-14. “I’m very happy that I have the chance to have at least two more matches. Hopefully I can finish the year in a good way. I think it’s going in the right direction, and let’s see what’s coming.”

Around the Pala Alpitour

Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos mastered the Green Group at the Nitto ATP Finals this week, winning all three of their matches while dropping  just one set. On Thursday evening, without the pressure of needing a must-win to qualify for semifinal play, the fifth-seeded Spanish/Argentine duo went out and took care of business against No. 7 seeds Maximo Gonzalez and Andres Molteni, both of Argentina, winning 6-3, 6-4, in a comfortable 83 minutes.

Granollers and Zeballos (3-0) have qualified for the semifinals for the third time in four years and remain one of five teams in contention for Year-End No. 1 honors, while the Argentines went winless in their Turin debut.

Against Gonzalez and Molteni, Granollers combined to hit four aces and won 73 percent of their first-serve points. They saved all four break points they faced and outpointed their opponents 57-49.

Joining Granollers and Zeballos in advancing to Saturday’s semifinal round from the Green Group were Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico and Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France, who finished 2-1 following their Thursday afternoon upset of No. 1 seeds Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Austin Krajicek of the United States.

By the numbers

When Holger Rune of Denmark made his Nitto ATP Finals debut on Sunday in his three-plus hour, three-set loss to Novak Djokovic, he hit 18 aces – the most aces the young Dane has hit in his career in a best-of-three sets tour-level match.

“Quotable …”

“I think it would be nice for the sport to have at least one more match between Nadal and me. That’s the biggest rivalry in terms of the amount of matches played that this sport ever had. Hopefully that can happen.

“He’s a big warrior. He’s somebody that really never gives up. With all the injuries that he had, keeps going. That’s definitely something that you have to respect and admire about him and his spirit.

“For the world of tennis, no doubt that it’s amazing news that he’ll be back.”

– World No.1 Novak Djokovic, from his Thursday press conference, reacting to news that Rafael Nadal expects to return to the ATP Tour in 2024.