Korda, Alcaraz March Into Milan Title Match

Sebastian Korda (photo: ATP Tour video)

MILAN/WASHINGTON, November 12, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Semifinal Friday at the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals featured three of the top four seeds and marked the fourth consecutive time that the top seed has been a part of the final four mix. It’s also the third straight time that the top two seeds had reached the semifinals.

So, while there’s been few surprises in Milan, where the best 21-and-under players have assembled, one that stood out was No. 6 seed Sebastian Baez of Argentina – even in his straight-set semifinal loss against No. 1 seed Carlos Alcaraz of Spain. A winner of five ATP Challenger Tour titles this year – all on clay – the 20-year-old from Buenos Aires, who arrived with a career-high ranking of No. 111, had never played a tour-level match on a hard court. Despite bowing on Friday, Baez gave a good account of himself all week.

The Argentine opened with a four-set win over Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti, lost to No. 2 seed Sebastian Korda of the United States, then took care of business against Hugo Gaston of France to finish second in Group B and become the first South American to make it to the semifinals in the tournament’s history.

Baez faced a tall task in his semifinal match against Alcaraz, who had been near perfect all week. Not only did Alcaraz go 3-0 in Group A play, he dropped just one set, during his Thursday victory over Juan Manuel Cerundolo of Argentina. The winner would be the first player from their country to reach the final.

After beating Gaston, Baez said in 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.”

As it happened, Alcaraz was just overpowering aggressive in the biggest moments. He beat Baez, 4-2, 4-1, 4-2, in an hour and two minutes, to advance to Saturday evening’s final against Korda. It will be the first head-to-head meeting between the top two seeds in Milan.

The 18-year-old Spaniard hit seven aces, including an explosive one that closed out the opening set, and finished with an economical 16 winners to 11 unforced errors. Meanwhile, Baez mustered just four winners and made 13 unforced errors. Alcaraz outpointed Baez 59-31, which included converting four of nine break point chances.

“It was a really good match for my side,” Alcaraz said during his on-court interview following his fourth victory of the tournament. “I knew I had to play a good game, to play really, really aggressive. I knew [Baez] was going to fight, so I had to keep a good level.”

Korda goes the distance to win, again

Another player who has stood out this week has been Korda, as much for his ability to grit out five-set triumphs as anything, which he’s now done twice after beating No. 4 seed Brandon Nakashima.

In an all-United States semifinal, between Korda (3-0) and Nakashima (2-1), the winner would be the first American to reach the final in the tournament’s four-year history. After losing the first two sets against Gaston in his first match, the 21-year-old Korda marched into the semifinals after winning nine straight sets to finish undefeated and in first place in Group B. Meanwhile, Nakashima, 20, who was playing in just his second tour-level indoor event, won his opener against Cerundolo, lost to Alcaraz, then beat Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune to finish second in Group A.

Korda used the experience gained from going the distance to beat Gaston and applied it in his 4-3 (3), 2-4, 1-4, 4-2, 4-2 victory over Nakashima in their first head-to-head meeting.

“It was an incredible match. Brandon was playing some unbelievable tennis halfway through it,” Korda said during his on-court interview. “I just stayed with him and had a couple of chances in the fourth and fifth sets, and I took it an ran with it.”

Early evidence suggested a close, toe-to-toe contest and both held steady through the first six service games of the match. Each fought off break points and neither gave in. With Nakashima ahead 3-2, on serve, Korda hit his third ace and held to force a first-set tie break. In the tie break, Korda broke and held twice to take a quick and commanding 3-0 lead. He extended it to 4-1 with another mini break of Nakashima. Then, Korda held his serve twice for a 6-1 advantage and Nakashima countered with two holds that saved two set points. However, Korda won the set 7-3 on his serve as he fired his fifth ace to close out the 27-minute opener.

Nakashima rallied in the 22-minute second set, breaking Korda in the opening game, and holding through three straight service games to win 4-2. Then, the San Diego, Calif. native broke Korda in the third game and consolidated the break on the deciding point with his fourth ace to lead 3-1. He put Korda on notice and broke the Florida resident, who began to show signs of physical problems with his groin and hip flexor, to win the 19-minute third set 4-1 with his third break of Korda’s serve in the match.

Ahead two-sets-to-one, Nakashima continued to show poise and steadiness, both on his serve and in his return games. He began with a love hold, but Korda came up with a big game to break for a 2-1 advantage, needing to win the fourth game to force a decider. After stringing together 10 straight points, he consolidated by winning a deciding point for a 3-1 lead. Then, a game later, Korda came up big with a love hold to win the 20-minute fourth set 4-2, which sent the match to a fifth-set decider.

In the deciding set, there was plenty of tension accompanying each game. With very little margin for error, at 2-all, Korda gained a break point at 30-40 with an overhead volley winner coming into the net and broke Nakashima on the deciding point with a backhand winner that froze his opponent. With a 3-2 lead and Korda serving for the match, he gained a match point with a forehand winner at 40-15 and won the match on his first try with a backhand that hit the net cord and dropped in to wrap up the semifinal over Nakashima in one hour and 51 minutes.

Asked about the 10-point run he enjoyed at the beginning of the fourth set, Korda called it a difference maker “I got more aggressive and tried to come into the net a little bit more. I was going for more flat serves and tried to open up the court more. It worked really well for me today,” he said.

Korda finished with 10 aces and hit 30 winners – 14 of them from his forehand – to 34 unforced errors, while Nakashima produced 19 winners and made 12 unforced errors. Korda controlled the net by winning 12 of 19 opportunities. Despite being outpointed 85-83, he won more points on his serve – 60 to 54 – than Nakashima. The victory was the 31st of the season for Korda.

Friday’s Next Gen ATP Finals results

Saturday’s Next Gen ATP Finals order of play

By the numbers

Carlos Alcaraz is trying to become the second straight 18-year-old to reach the Next Gen final and win the title after Jannik Sinner captured the crown two years ago.

• Sebastian Korda became the first player from the United States to reach the Next Gen ATP Finals title match in the tournament’s four-year history. Carlos Alcaraz is also the first player from Spain to reach the Milan final.

“Quotable …”

“Of course. [Carlos] has high sights set very high and he also had an eye on the other tournament [the Nitto ATP Finals], because he was No. 20 in the [FedEx ATP] Race [To Turin]. Without a doubt, he was very excited to come here and it was one of the goals at the start of the season. We haven’t spoken much about it because you pay more attention to the normal ranking. Since he qualified, he has been looking forward to playing the tournament even though there are no points available. Because of the characteristics of the tournament: the singles court, the eight best players.”

Juan Carlos Ferrero, coach of Carlos Alcaraz, who was asked during press this week if he viewed Milan as the reward for a great season.

“How Carlos Alcaraz just shot up, at the end of the year how well he was playing was impressive. There are a lot of great players here, which is awesome to see. We all played juniors together, so we all know each other and it is fun to play against each other. It is awesome.”

Sebastian Korda of the United States, on how much it motivates him to see others doing well.