Playing a Masters 1000 event for only the third time in his career, 19-year-old Jannik Sinner became just the fourth male teenager to reach the finals in the history of the Miami Open.
“I think it's nice to play finals here in Miami,” said Sinner, “but, you know, as I say, it doesn't mean anything, you know, that you are going to win other tournaments. I mean, the road is long.”
There is nothing in tennis quite like the shape and even sound of tennis balls struck by youth in ascent. As Sinner saw today in his semifinal versus seventh-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut, the line may eventually point upward, but it’s hardly a straight line; there will be easy power, but there will rarely be easy victories.
Amid breezy conditions and temperatures near 80 degrees, Sinner took two hours and 29 minutes to earn a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win versus an opponent whose face can be seen in the dictionary alongside the words “rough customer.” Down 1-3 in the third, Sinner caught fire, taking five of the last six games. With Bautista Agut serving at 4-5, Sinner stepped into high gear, breaking at love behind a series of lacerating groundstrokes, the final shot a fitting exclamation point: an untouchable crosscourt backhand. “I think he has something special in tough moments,” said Bautista Agut.
It had taken a while, though, for Sinner to reach the finish line. Over the course of the first two sets, he’d made 43 unforced errors, testimony both to his in-progress skill set, but also the result of a formidable opponent.
One nation often serves as the sentry guard standard of such fundamental tennis values as fitness, consistency and a great many players dotting the ranks. Once upon a time it was Australia, then Sweden. In the 21st century, Spain has held that honor. The 32-year-old Bautista Agut is an exemplary case of his homeland’s pervasive excellence, his concentration thorough, manners impeccable, movement superb, shots concussive—and notably, somewhat flatter than most of his compatriots. That array has kept Bautista Agut among the ATP’s near-elite for a long time, a 2019 semifinal run at Wimbledon helping him vault into the Top 10 at year’s end. Witness the oppressive climate Bautista Agut creates for his opponents and you’ll wonder if it’s ever possible to call any error purely unforced.
Just last month, in Dubai, Sinner had barely won their first and only prior match, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. Both were well aware that today was likely to be grueling too, Sinner the one throwing punches, Bautista Agut countering, but also capable of pushing himself to strike (capable, not preferable).
Sinner stops by the Tennis Channel Desk after his victory:
Two turning points came in the second set. Having squeaked out the first set, 7-5, Bautista Agut maintained focus nicely. There is something quite reassuring in watching a contemporary Spaniard in control this way, akin to an airline pilot calmly at the helm of a cross-country flight. With Sinner serving at 3-3, Bautista Agut played just solidly enough to go up love-30. Time to lower the landing gear? Not quite. At love-40, Bautista Agut let a Sinner backhand fly by him, thinking it would go out.
Said Bautista Agut, “I thought that ball was going out and finally touch the line one millimeter, no? Tennis sometimes it's crazy, no? Sometimes it's like this, and one ball can make a big difference on the match.”
“I just tried to stick into there,” said Sinner, “because, you know, when you go 4-3 down with break, it's never easy to come back.”
Soon enough, Sinner asserted himself and held. His ride had been bumpy, but Sinner remained aloft.
A slightly similar situation came two games later. Sinner served at 4-4, love-30, but again escaped. A major factor in this match was that while Bautista Agut’s technique allows him to drive the ball through the court, Sinner’s lets him take it off the court, his crosscourt backhand in particular a rally-opener today. For Bautista Agut the court is a rectangle. For Sinner, it’s a circle. That geographic difference gave the younger man just enough breathing room to hang on, go up 5-4 and level the match on his second set point, the rally ended with Bautista Agut attempting an ill-informed backhand drop shot.
And then the direction changed yet again. For all the ways Sinner appeared to control many rallies throughout the match, his aptitude for dictating was scarcely wire-to-wire. Sinner’s level dropped significantly at the start of the third. Unwavering per usual, at 1-all, Bautista Agut broke Sinner at love, held at love and appeared in a good place to run out the match.
It didn’t go that way at all.
Sinner woke up and began to hit with more depth and pace. Bautista Agut had set the pace, but was unable—or unwilling?—to seek the higher gear in the late stages. From 4-all on, it was all Sinner. Youth had seized the day. Unquestionably, this was a major rite of passage moment in the education of an impressive prodigy.
As for the other three teens that reached the Miami finals, all they did was win 46 Grand Slam singles titles—Andre Agassi (’90 winner), Rafael Nadal (’05 runner-up), Novak Djokovic (’07 winner). But for Sinner right now, past is mere prologue. As Bautista Agut said, “He has everything, no? He has a big serve, he's tall, he's big, he moves well, he has very good groundstrokes. Well, mentally he's also great and improving. He has a great future coming up.”