Miami Open 2021: Jannik Sinner edges Bautista Agut again to reach first Masters final
Italian was 1-3 down in decider before out-gunning the gritty Spaniard
For a tournament located in a city and a state with such a strong Spanish presence, it is surprising how few Spanish tennis players had made the ultimate breakthrough at the Miami Masters.
After all, here is an event that, with its sibling in Indian Wells, has larger draws than any tournament outside the four Majors.
Yet not a single Spaniard had won the men’s title since the tournament’s inception in 1985. And what also stood out was that one of the most prolific Masters champions—and Major champions, come to that—Rafael Nadal has never won the Miami title, the only outdoor Masters to elude him.
To his credit, Nadal had reached five finals in his 13 visits, while the only other compatriots ever to get so far on Miami’s slow and taxing courts were David Ferrer, Carlos Moya and Sergi Bruguera with one final each.
So the task of first-time Miami semi-finalist, the 32-year-old Roberto Bautista Agut, looked a formidable one.
It was a task all the more formidable because he took on one of the brightest stars among the next generation of players, 19-year-old Jannik Sinner.
But then the young Italian also had something of a mountain to climb if the record-books were anything to go by. Just three previous teenagers had made the final, all of them ultimately world No1s and multiple Major champions: Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andre Agassi. The latter pair were the only men to win the title while still age 19—but Sinner would become the youngest of all should he lift the trophy on Sunday.
In his favour, Sinner had met Bautista Agut just once before, a fortnight back in Dubai, and having won two titles in the previous few months. It was a thrilling contest of almost two and a half hours, won by the Italian 7-5 in the third set.
Such was the young star’s progress, indeed, that he was matching the achievements of those former teenage champions: The youngest two-time champion since Djokovic; and the youngest player to win titles in consecutive appearances since Nadal.
His rankings certainly started to tell the same story: Into the top 100 in 2019, ended 2020 as No1 teenager with a 3-5 record versus the top 10, and achieved a career-high No31 this month. He will be No25 next week come what may, and verging on No20 should he reach the final.
However, the Italian would know only too well the form Bautista Agut had found in Miami, with wins over three seeds that included former champion John Isner and top seed Daniil Medvedev. The fitness, footwork and absence of any real weakness in the game of the Spaniard makes him a formidable opponent, though the absence of a really big shot—a Djokovic backhand, a Nadal top-spin bullwhip, a Federer serve—is perhaps what had kept him shy of a Masters title or a Major final.
The Spaniard, then, straight away took advantage of a nervy opening by Sinner, breaking courtesy of a couple of wayward Italian forehands. He then faced break points of his own, but some pinpoint accuracy on serve saved the day for a 2-0 lead.
A sizzling forehand winner from Sinner after a 26-stroke rally brought up three break points, and the Italian switched it up again with an acute angle to draw an error from Bautista Agut: a break to level, 3-3.
The crowd, small as it was, erupted in appreciation of the tennis, but it served to inject more nimble and precise shot-making from the Spaniard and a break point. Sinner ripped a wrong-footing forehand for deuce before facing two more break points. He saved them, and after eight minutes, and some leg-draining tactical plays for the Spaniard, Sinner held.
Bautista Agut remained undaunted, chasing and defending and turning on the attack when chances appeared. It all earned him another break chance in the 11th game, and another long, testing exchange drew the error from Sinner. Bautista Agut served out the set, 7-5.
Both had made more errors than winners, but 26 errors from Sinner were just too many against someone of such experience, efficiency and accuracy as Bautista Agut.
There were few inroads by either man in the early games of the second set, but the fourth game was a key moment, as Bautista Agut worked 0-40, and then one more break point, with metronomic corner-to-corner rallies. However the Italian rose to the challenge, finding better angles, and winners down both wings on danger points, 4-3.
The Spaniard also had to face and save break point, as they edged to what looked a tie-break, though Sinner was now looking sharper and more in control of the baseline. Sure enough, he ripped a couple of returns of serve and broke for the set, 6-4.
Bautista Agut is not a man to buckle under pressure, and he went on a 10-point winning run at the start of the third set to lead, 3-1, after a break to love and a hold to love. But Sinner hit straight back, making some huge strikes to break back, and finding his best, big serves to hold, 4-3.
And so it continued, with the Italian’s winners stacking up. With Bautista Agut serving at 4-5, Sinner hit three clean backhand winners to break for set and match, 6-4.
It had taken a few minutes longer than their Dubai meeting, and this time took the teenager to a Masters final, surely the first of many to come.
He said of the achievement:
“It feels unbelievable. It’s always tough to play against Roberto. Two weeks ago we played in Dubai, we had a tough one there. Now, a tough one here. I’m very happy about reaching the final here in Miami.”
Spare a thought, though, for Bautista Agut. He has reached the Wimbledon semis, the Shanghai final, and three further Masters semis, and at every turn faced Djokovic, Nadal or Andy Murray. None are in Miami this week, but now this 32-year-old, rather like Ferrer before him, not only has the glass ceiling of the ‘big four’ Masters blocking his ambitions but the cream of the NextGen snapping at the heels.
The likes of Medvedev and Alexander Zverev already have multiple Masters titles, while Andrey Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are closing in fast on the same. And it means that time is surely running out for Bautista Agut to take his place in the Masters record book.
Rublev, the No4 seed, would soon be playing No26 Hubert Hurkacz for his own chance of a first Masters final at the age of 23. Rublev was yet to drop a set in Miami, leads the tournament in first and second serve points won, and leads the tour with match-wins this year, 20-3.