Rio Open Dream Week Continues For Navone

Mariano Navone (photo: Rio Open/Fotojump)

RIO DE JANEIRO/WASHINGTON, February 25, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

It’s been a dream week in Rio de Janeiro for Argentina’s Mariano Navone, one that he hopes can last for another day.

On Saturday night at the Rio Open presented by Claro, the 113th-ranked Navone garnered a 6-4, 6-2 win over World No. 23 and defending champion Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, who was physically struggling on the red clay of the Jockey Club Brasileiro by the conclusion of the one-hour, 59-minute semifinal match played in stifling heat.

Navone came to Rio de Janeiro with a 0-2 career record in ATP Tour main draws. As a qualifier, he earned his first ATP Tour win, then defeated No. 56 Yannick Hanfmann and wild card Joao Fonseca to reach his first tour-level quarterfinal and semifinal. Against the No. 2 seed Norrie, Navone picked up the biggest win of his career – his first over a Top 50 opponent – and he became the first qualifier to reach an ATP 500 final since Jiri Vesely at Dubai in 2022.

On Sunday, Navone will take on No. 5 seed Sebastian Baez in an all-Argentina title match.

In the opening set at 3-all, Navone broke Norrie and consolidated the break for a 5-3 lead. Soon, Norrie saved five set points in a nearly-10-minute, grueling 18-point game in an attempt keep himself alive in the set. However, Navone continued to mount pressure on Norrrie – showing plenty of poise but no fear – and on his sixth set point, but first on his serve, won the 64-minute set 6-4.

Then, Navone broke to open the second set but Norrie erased it a game later and the battle was on. Quickly, Navone broke Norrie, again, in the third game – and this time, it was enough of a cushion to ride his way to victory. By the seventh-game changeover, Norrie was having trouble with his breathing and needed assistance from the tournament doctor to soldier on. To his credit, Norrie stood his ground tough until Navone wrapped up the win.

“It was incredible,” Navone said in his on-court remarks. “It’s a pleasure to play here in Rio, my first ATP 500. I’m very happy to make the final, my first final. I played so good all week and I hope [to win] the title tomorrow.”

Navone finished with 27 winners to 14 unforced errors, converted five of 18 break points and outpointed Norrie 79-61. Norrie was hampered by 37 unforced errors.

Nine-game swing lifts Baez into his biggest final

In the other semifinal, an all-Argentina battle turned into a lopsided victory for the No. 5 seed Baez, who breezed to an impressive 7-5, 6-0 victory over No. 4 seed Francisco Cerundolo in his first semifinal at a level higher than an ATP 250. The 30th-ranked Baez, who lost his only prior tour-level meeting against Cerundolo at the Bastad final in 2022, won the final nine games of the one-hour, 24-minute match on Quadra Guga Kuerten.

“We know each other too much, I think more than I want,” Baez said after the win. “All matches are different. Today it’s going to my side. In the first set, I gave many break points to him. I had to take it because it’s so hard for both.”

Down 4-5 in the opening set, Baez saved three set points under pressure in the 10th game. Then, he broke Cerundolo in the next game to push ahead 6-5, and closed out the set with a love hold to win it. Throughout, Baez showed his quickness and was the more solid player hitting from the baseline. Cerundolo committed 28 of his 39 unforced errors in the first 12 games and only won 56 percent of his first serves in the first set – 50 percent for the entire match.

Next, Baez wasted little time in taking control of the second set. He jumped out to a double-break 3-0 lead — having now won six straight games — as Cerundolo continued to struggle just to keep the ball in play. Soon, after having converted five of 10 break-point opportunities, Baez closed out the second set – and match – with an easy hold and a bagel set.

Baez saved six of the seven break points he faced and he outpointed Cerundolo 68-45.

“It’s hard but I always try to be focused on the next point, on the next game, every time thinking about my game and what I have to do,” said Baez, who has moved up to a career-best No. 23 in the ATP Live Rankings.

Now, Baez will play for his seventh and biggest tour-level title when he faces Navone.

“I’m really happy to be playing my first ATP 500 final,” Baez said in his post-match news conference. “This week has been amazing, I’ve been doing a great swing in South America and I’m happy to play another match here in Rio tomorrow.”

Around the Jockey Club Brasileiro

Austrians Alexander Erler and Lucas Miedler advanced to the doubles final with a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2) victory over Sadio Doumbia and Fabien Reboul of France in an hour and 57 minutes.

In Sunday’s title match, Erler and Miedler will face Nicolas Barrientos of Colombia and Rafael Matos of Brazil, who advanced with a 2-6, 6-3, 10-6 win over Italy’s Simone Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori on Friday.

World No. 2 and Rio Open top seed Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, who was forced to retire two points into his first-round match against Thiago Monteiro Tuesday evening, was at the Royal Box Saturday watching the semifinal between Sebastian Baez and Francisco Cerundolo at Quadra Guga Kuerten. The 2022 tournament champion was joined by fellow Spaniard and 2015 champion David Ferrer, tournament director Lui Carvalho and former Brazilian player André Sá.

By the numbers

Despite losing his semifinal match, World No. 22 Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina will return to Top 20 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings on Monday.

“Quotable …”

“It’s very humid, very hot to play here. But I think it’s really very special, you know, like the sort of proper tennis club and atmosphere is crazy. They love tennis. And you’re playing under Christ the Redeemer, so I think it’s an unbelievable tournament, and year, I think it’s a great city. I like cities on the beach and actually, this year, I have not done too much and all I’ve done is go to the beach in the morning, go swimming and then play tennis in the afternoon.

“So, I’m in good a good routine at the moment and hopefully after the tournament, I’ll get to enjoy one night and do something fun. I know it’s a great city outside of just the tennis bubble that I’m in right now.”

— Defending champion Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, during his Friday news conference after reaching the semifinal round.