Rotterdam 2020: Teenager Auger-Aliassime into semis, but fellow #NextGen Sinner loses thriller

18yo Sinner saves three match points before losing two in tie-break decider to Carreno Busta

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Felix Auger Aliassime
Felix Auger Aliassime (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Many tennis fans at the year’s first ATP500 event in Rotterdam were seeing one of the brightest prospects on the men’s scene, Jannik Sinner, for the first time. And the young Italian, who will not turn 19 until August, made an impression that they are sure to remember.

The cool, calm demeanour of 18-year-old Sinner is itself impressive in one so young, but with a big backhand and serve, a willingness to come forward in the court, and ever-improving experience and confidence, this young player has been making an inexorable rise up the ranks.

A year ago, he was well outside the top 300, now 79, having claimed three Challenger titles through 2019, and that despite gaining no points from his storming win of the #NextGen Finals title, where he beat No18 Alex de Minaur.

He also made his first main-tour semi-final in Antwerp, and this season, he notched up his first Major match-win in Australia. Now he had risen to the challenge at the ATP500 level. Rotterdam has a tradition of giving wild cards to promising new players, and that was Sinner’s route into the main draw, where he got another boost when his first opponent withdrew.

He hit the ground running, too, in his first appearance at the Ahoy, to claim his first ever top-10 win over David Goffin. And that guaranteed he would break inside the top 70.

But now he faced a wily, experienced campaigner in the shape of Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, a solid player just as at home on hard courts as clay. Sinner would have his work cut out.

For while the Spaniard was currently ranked 30 after some injury problems last season, Carreno Busta had been as high as No10, had four titles from seven finals, had made the semis at the US Open, and was a dab hand on a doubles court, too.

His consistency through a decade on the pro tour was expressed quite simply here: The Spaniard had beaten compatriot Roberto Bautista Agut, the No6 seed, in a tough three-setter to reach his 44th quarter-final, and was targeting his 22nd win at this stage of a tournament.

And all that experience and fitness was on full show from the off. There was nothing between the two men as they headed towards what looked like a justifiable tie-break: Solid serving, just a break point apiece—both saved—and with 30 points apiece before Sinner stepped up to serve a 5-5. Then the teenager missed his first serve and was punished—a swift break, the first of the match—and Carreno Busta served for the set. He did not blink, taking the opener 7-5, in what had been, until the 11th game, a high-quality contest.

Sinner showed his fighting spirit to dig in and save break points in the third game of the second set, going for winners from the baseline but also trying to break things up at the net. He deserved the hold, and worked a break point in the next game, and then another in the sixth after a couple of inspired baseline strikes and some impressive defence.

He earned one more, but Sinner caught the net with a bold drop-shot attempt. His body language said it all: He should have broken, but had not, 3-3.

To the Spaniard’s credit, his resistance and defensive skills were impressive, and his error count low, but he finally gave up the break in the eighth, and Sinner pounded out a hold for the set, 6-3.

Sinner kept up the aggressive tactics for four break chances in the opening game of the third, but the Spaniard held, and then broke. Another hold, and Carreno Busta was 3-0 up and serving much better than his opponent.

Indeed the youngster seemed to run out of ideas, and with a 1/10 success in break points, it was not a surprise to see him finally bow his head in frustration after a failed net attempt to go 2-5 down.

That tally rose to 1-13 after working 0-40 against Carreno Busta at 3-5 down. Sinner allowed himself a clenched fist as he earned yet another chance, and this time he converted, but it was a false dawn. Immediately, he faced 0-40 himself, three match points. Yet he produced some of his biggest shots to win five points in a row, and the crowd loved it: 5-5. A love hold, and it would be a deciding tie-break, Sinner’s first in a decider on the main tour.

The teenager continued to go for his shots to gasps from the crowd, and he it was who served for the match at 6-4, but his first serve had gone AWOL, and he paid the price. Carreno Busta serve-and-volleyed on one, aced on the next, and all at once had the lead. He forced one last error to steal the match, 7-6(6), after two and three-quarter hours—his third marathon match in a row.

And in a half where all the seeds had disappeared, the Spaniard would now play the winner between Aljaz Bedene and another teenager, 19-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Bedene had been 1-20 against top-10 players prior to Rotterdam, but the 52-ranked Slovenian beat the No2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets to reach his second quarter-final of the season. However, Auger-Aliassime was only a little shy of his No17 high last October, a ranking since affected by an ankle injury at the end of 2019. To give that some context, last May the young Canadian became the youngest player ranked in top-25 since Lleyton Hewitt in 1999, one of many ‘youngest since’ records he had notched up in the last year.

Unlike Sinner, then, Auger-Aliassime was not the underdog in this quarter-final, and even though he looked slightly under the weather, sniffing and coughing, he earned a break chance in the sixth game, and finally broke in the 10th, 6-4.

Bedene was struggling with his first serve, just 44 percent in that first set, and he still lacked intensity in the second, going 3-0 down. But all at once, the Slovenian got a break back, and his level gradually rose. He levelled, and as they reached the tie-break, he was 17/18 on his first serve.

A 29-shot rally, won with a drop shot winner, gave Bedene the 4-2 lead, but now Auger-Aliassime responded in kind to produce the best rallies of the match. And a 22nd winner from the Canadian on match-point sealed the deal, 7-6(6), to reach the semis of a 500 event for the third time in his short career.

Rotterdam saw two teenagers battle it out on Centre Court, and although only one of them reached the semis, fans would go home knowing they had seen a glimpse of the future of men’s tennis.

No3 seed and defending champion Gael Monfils now takes on Briton Dan Evans, followed by No7 seed Andrey Rublev against Filip Krajinovic, to determine who plays the evening semi-final come Saturday in Rotterdam.

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