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A stubborn Jannik Sinner reigns Vienna, while Felix Auger-Aliassime says he's 'definitely back' in Basel repeat
Two young talents each showed something different in their victorious runs indoors in Europe.
Published Oct 29, 2023
“It took a lot of mental and physical stuff,” Jannik Sinner said after his 7-6(7), 4-6, 6-3 win over Daniil Medvedev in the Erste Bank Open in Vienna on Sunday.
“Stuff” sounds like a word you might use when nothing else comes to mind. But its lack of specificity was fitting for Sinner’s performance. The 22-year-old had to do a lot of different things, other than firing rockets from the baseline, to survive. His groundstroke power and shot-making purity have never been in question. With this win, though, he showed how far he has come with everything else in his game over the last 12 months.
The Vienna final won’t go down as the match of the year, but, minute for minute, it may have been the most brutal. It was best-of-three, but with its three-hour length, its momentum swings, its intensity of play, its mix of long rallies and go-for-broke swings, and the amount of ground the two players covered, it felt like a five-set war of attrition.
After some points, Sinner bent over his towel in the corner of the court to catch his breath. After others, Medvedev propped himself up with his racquet. There were plenty of rallies that ended with each man struggling to catch his breath.
“I was hustling a little bit,” Sinner said, smiling at the understatement.
This was the fourth final of 2023 between the Italian and the Russian. Medvedev won the first two, in Rotterdam and Miami; Sinner won the most recent, earlier this month in Beijing, in two tiebreaks. That victory, his first in seven tries against Medvedev, was a major breakthrough for Sinner, and took him to a career-high No. 4.
This win, which required Sinner to break Medvedev’s momentum in the third set, proved it was no fluke.
Sinner’s will to attack, and his paper-thin margin for error, mean he’s prone to playing roller-coaster, feast-or-famine tennis. In the first set, he had his low-percentage down-the-line shots working. “The linear strikes are otherworldly!” commentator Robbie Koenig exulted. In the second set, though, those linear strikes began to catch the tape, and Sinner’s first serve abandoned him.
When Medvedev went up 15-30 on Sinner’s serve to start the third, it looked as if the higher-ranked Russian had turned the ship around for good. In the Rotterdam final in February, Sinner won a close first set before Medvedev swept through the last two 6-2, 6-2.
Were we heading for a repeat of that result here?
Instead, we found out that, as far as Sinner’s development is concerned, October is far cry from February. This time Sinner was able to push the reset button. He came back to hold in the opening game of the third with an inspired drop shot-passing shot combination, and some strong hitting from the backhand side.
But as I wrote above, Sinner would need more than just inspired shot combos to finish this match. He would need to max out his mental and physical reserves, and play with a stubbornness that would make his sometime-practice partner Rafael Nadal proud. The third set would be a series of tests of Sinner’s patience.
First, with Medvedev serving at 1-2, Sinner squandered seven break points before finally converting on his eighth. Then, when Medvedev broke back right away, Sinner put that disappointment behind and broke again to go up 5-2. Finally, serving for the match at 5-3, Sinner saved two break points and closed it out on his second championship point.
“In the third set I tried to step up a little bit,” Sinner said. “I had a lot of break points, I couldn’t use them and then at the end I used them so I’m very happy.
“Obviously to finish the match, it was really a mental thing, but I’m very happy about how I managed today and very happy for another title."
Sinner has always had the big shots, but he didn’t always close out the big matches. Now, as he rises into the game’s upper-most echelon, he has all the stuff he needs to win them.
Every player goes through ups and downs. But to my eye, Felix Auger-Aliassime’s are the most precipitous of anyone’s. Two different times over the past the two seasons, he has sunk so low I wondered if he was ever going to play top-level tennis again.
The first came at the 2022 US Open, when he was swept out in the second round with stunning ease by Jack Draper. Auger Aliassime was just 22, but he suddenly looked like yesterday’s news. He wasn’t, of course. The following month, he won three straight titles and beat Novak Djokovic at Laver Cup and Rafael Nadal at the ATP Finals.
The second moment of doubt for me came over the course of this season. I knew he was suffering from knee injuries, but the pile-up of early-round losses—he was 17-18 on the season before this week—seemed like harbingers of worse to come for the Canadian. Three younger players, Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, and Holger Rune, were on the rise, while FAA was treading water at best.
Again, I’m happy to report that my worries were premature. This week FAA took flight, winning five straight matches and defending his title at the Swiss Indoors. He did it the hard way, too, beating Rune in the semifinals, and Hubert Hurkacz, who is trying to qualify for Turin, 7-6(3), 7-6(5), in the final.
Auger-Aliassime played with a mix of flashy athleticism, precise aggression, and unbreakable service power in the final. He hit 13 aces and 43 winners. He won 93 percent of his first-serve points and didn’t face a break point. He was 13 of 17 at net.
In the match-deciding tiebreakers, FAA showed the poise of a player with a much better season record.
In the first breaker, he leaped back to hit a winning smash, Yannick Noah-style; finished another point with an inside-in forehand and a high volley winner; and went up a mini-break for good with a forehand pass. In the second tiebreaker, Auger Aliassime hit five winners, including two on returns of serve, and won the final three points from 4-5 down.
“I’m definitely back,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I let my racquet talk. That’s always been the motto of my career. There were many doubts about my performances, and why, this year. I never doubted, but it’s good to prove it on the court."
This two-time doubter agrees.