Jannik Sinner: A Young Italian Makes History In Sofia

Jannik Sinner (photo: Sofia Open/Lap.bg)

WASHINGTON/SOFIA, November 13, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Inspiring and instinctive, Jannik Sinner has made a fantastic commitment this week at the ATP 250 Sofia Open in the Bulgarian capital city. In just the third ATP Tour-level semifinal of his young professional career, the 19-year-old Sinner has become the youngest finalist in the Open Era from Italy.

On Friday, the resident of San Candido in South Tyrol took control of his match against 35th-ranked Adrian Mannarino of France and parlayed it into a 6-3, 7-5 victory to reach his first ATP Tour final. On Saturday, he will face No. 74 Vasek Pospisil of Canada in the title match. Sinner becomes the youngest ATP Tour-level finalist since then-18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime reached the Stuttgart final in 2019. He will try to become the youngest ATP Tour-level champion since then-18-year-old Kei Nishikori achieved the feat at Delray Beach in 2008.

“For me, it’s great being in a final here,” Sinner told Tennis TourTalk during his virtual press conference after the match. “Obviously, playing one more match is important. Playing in my first final this year is good. It’s the last tournament of the year and I’m trying to finish in the best possible way. I’m very happy and looking forward to tomorrow.”

As the first semifinal unfolded inside Arena Armeec, by his third service game, the 6-foot-2-inch right-handed Sinner began to take the left-handed Mannarino out of his comfort zone by hitting big, powerful forehand returns while also making the 32-year-old Frenchman toggle from corner to corner. The young Italian held for 3-2 after Mannarino halted a 20-shot rally by hitting his forehand long. Then, Sinner got the break he sought. Mannarino made a couple of avoidable hitting errors and Sinner took advantage of them to go ahead 4-2. He consolidated the break with an easy hold for a 5-2 advantage. Serving for the set a game later, Sinner put it away with an impressive service ace and an unforced error by Mannarino at the conclusion of a 10-shot rally. By the conclusion of the 34-minute opening set, Sinner had won 81 percent (13 of 16) of his first-serve points and didn’t faced any break points.

“Obviously, you go on the court with a plan and try to do the things you would like to do,” Sinner explained. “It’s possible he’s going to change something. He was serving well. I still had to manage how to return his serve and to make him move a little bit. He has a great, flat backhand. You have to always go down with your knees. It was a physical match, for sure. You have to always manage the situation and today it worked well.”

In the second set, it seemed each time Mannarino began to threaten Sinner, the Italian had a solution. He saved two break points to hold his serve at 2-all. While Mannarino seemed content with keeping the ball in play and extending rallies, Sinner was more aggressive in his approach to end points. Like the first set, the margin for error was very narrow. Mannarino gained a break point when Sinner netted a forehand return at the end of a 25-shot skirmish. However, Sinner remained focused and held his serve at 3-all following three consecutive long returns by Mannarino. Then, on serve at 5-4, Sinner held with a backhand passing shot winner that was of such high quality. In Mannarino’s next service game, Sinner gained a valuable break point at love-40 that left Mannarino scratching his head. The young Italian got the break he desperately sought to go ahead 6-5 after Mannarino netted an easy backhand volley after Sinner lunged far to his right to keep a seven-shot rally alive.

Serving for the match, Sinner jumped ahead 40-0 and won it on his first match-point opportunity, ending one hour and 27 minutes of inspiring play with a forehand winner. While Mannarino did little wrong, Sinner reached his first ATP Tour-level final with a powerful forehand and a solid backhand in his arsenal.

Sinner finished with nine aces and won 81 percent (29 of 36) of his first-serve points and dropped just 17 points on his service. He saved all three break points he faced and broke Mannarino twice. The Frenchman ended with one ace and won 71 percent (27 of 38) of his first-serve points. Sinner outpointed Mannarino 65-58.

The defeat ended Mannarino’s six-match winning streak in ATP Tour semifinals.

When Sinner was asked to describe what the experience has been like going from being Next Gen ATP Finals champion a year ago to reaching his first tour-level final, he said: “Obviously, you work to win matches. I’ve been working a lot. Playing finals is a good and nice feeling. I’ve missed it a little bit. Even after experiencing it at the Futures level and the Challengers level and the Next Gen, it’s always special. 

“It’s a great feeling and you want to play your best tennis. There’s a little more pressure [playing the final of a tour-level], it’s not as easy. I’ll try to go on court in the best possible way and see how it goes.”

Before Sinner began to take questions in his native Italian language, he was asked how much winning means to him. “It means a lot. When you work day after day, you go to sleep when you are tired. You work for winning,” he said.

“When you win matches you feel [great], but you always have to trust the process. There are difficult times and good times. When you play finals, it’s good. That’s what you’re working for. For me, the hard work is always the practice, the gym. I enjoy playing matches. Even if it goes to a third set, it’s not that hard mentally for me to play. It’s always more practice, practice. Obviously, when you win, it’s a good feeling and you want more.”

Pospisil rallies to beat Gasquet 

Canada’s last man playing, 74th-ranked Vasek Pospisil, sure enjoys playing on indoor hard courts. He’s 8-2 in his last 10 matches on the surface of his choice. Friday evening, he reached his second indoor final of the year with his comeback 6-7 (6), 6-2, 6-0 triumph over No. 49 Richard Gasquet of France for his 16th victory in 25 matches this season. It was his 12th indoor hardcourt victory in 2020.

While Pospisil, 30, came into Friday’s semifinal with a 3-2 advantage in the career head-to-head, it was no certainty that he would be able to beat Gasquet, again. The 34-year-old Frenchman came into the match with a clean sheet this week in Sofia, losing no sets through his first three matches. It was up to Pospisil to blemish Gasquet – and given time, he did just that in one hour and 51 minutes by winning 12 of the final 14 games.

“It felt good [to win]. I felt I had the upper hand in my service games and felt like I was dictating play from the baseline when I got my first serves in,” Pospisil told Tennis TourTalk. “When I got the break in third, I was pretty confident and it let me swing even more freely. When I got the second break, obviously, it made it tough [for Richard] to come back at that point. I was fortunate I just kept playing aggressive and everything I tried seemed to be going in.”

What began as a very evenly played opening set began to favor Gasquet by the time they reached the tiebreak stage. As Gasquet raised the level of his game with steady returns, Pospisil started to become unraveled through a series of uncharacteristic unforced errors. In the tiebreak, Pospisil squandered a 4-2 lead as he started trying to make every hit too good. Gasquet maintained his steadiness as he gained a couple of mini-breaks and won on his second set point when Pospisil netted a forehand return at the conclusion of the 55-minute first set.

In the second set, Pospisil broke to go ahead 3-2 with a very sharply-angled volley winner, then gained a double-break advantage when Gasquet hit a long forehand return. Pospisil sent the match to a decider with his fifth ace of the set and 14th of the match.

Then, in the final set, Pospisil upped the level of his game through both aggression and brilliance. Whether hitting drop shots or smoking aces that left Gasquet motionless, everything seemed to be going Pospisil’s way. Game by game, he played with more freedom. After Pospisil hit a forehand winner for a 5-0 triple-break advantage, he won on his second match-point by delivering his 19th ace of the match.

Pospisil won points on all but six (35 of 41) of his first serves that he successfully put into play and was effective with his second serve, too. He saved the only break point he faced and broke Gasquet five times in seven opportunities. Pospisil outpointed Gasquet 96-68. The loss ended Gasquet’s season 10-10.

“The last few matches I’ve played really well and I’ll try to take that with me into the final,” said the unseeded Pospisil, who reached the final with wins over lucky loser Illya Marchenko of Ukraine, No. 4 seed Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany and No. 6 seed John Millman of Australia. He’s lost just two sets the entire week.

“I feel good physically I’m going to go out there [against Jannik] and go for the win, play aggressive and try to take my chances,” said Pospisil, who will be facing Sinner for the first time. “I’m pleasantly surprised with how I’ve finished the year. I’m going to do my best tomorrow.”

Melzer/Roger-Vasselin clinch last Nitto ATP Finals berth

No. 1 seeds Jurgen Melzer of Austria and Edouard Roger-Vasselin from France defeated Tomislav Brkic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Marin Cilic from Croatia, 7-5, 6-4, in one hour and 21 minutes Friday afternoon to clinch the final spot in the Nitto ATP Finals.  Melzer and Roger-Vasselin saved six of seven break points they faced, withstood 12 aces from their opponents and outpointed Brkic and Cilic 66-59.

By Friday night, Saturday’s doubles final between Melzer and Roger-Vasselin against No. 2 seeds Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski, both of Great Britain, was scrubbed due to the Austrian/French pair needing to be in London for the Nitto ATP Finals. Thus, the British duo was awarded the Sofia Open title in a walkover.