Italian teen Jannik Sinner reaches Miami Open men’s final, could become youngest champion in history

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Jannik Sinner of Italy returns a shot to Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain in their semifinal match during the Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday, April 2, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida. - Michael Reaves/Getty Images North America/TNS

MIAMI — Jannik Sinner, an Italian teenager who was a top junior skier, reached the highest peak of his nascent tennis career on Friday, advancing to the Miami Open final.

Seeded No. 21, Sinner was considered an underdog in his semifinal against veteran Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, but the 19-year-old showed maturity beyond his years in a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory at Hard Rock Stadium.

If he wins the championship on Sunday, he will be the youngest champion in tournament history. Other teens who reached the final include Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi. Sinner shrugged off comparisons.

“I’m 19, the road to have this big name is long, it’s not done in one week of a tournament,” he said. “It’s a long process. It’s nice to play finals here in Miami, but it doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t mean I will win other events. The road is long. I know it. The work has to go on.”

Sinner is known for his fluid style, ball-striking ability and calm demeanor, and all were on display on the Grandstand Court. He rallied from a set down and fended off four break points in the seventh game of the second set to beat the Spaniard and earn a spot in the final.

He will face another unexpected finalist, 26th-seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, who stunned No. 4 Russian Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-4 in the Friday night semifinal. It was the Pole’s fourth upset of the tournament, following wins over No. 6 seed Denis Shapovalov, No. 12 Milos Raonic and No. 2 Stefanos Tsitsipas. Hurkacz is 9-0 in Florida this year, and the first player to reach finals at Delray Beach and Miami the same year since 2001.

Rublev was the highest seed left and on a spectacular run. Over the past 15 months his record was 61-13, he won six titles and early this year won 22 matches in a row. But he struggled with Hurkacz and the wind gusts and never got comfortable. Rublev also lost to Hurkacz in Rome last fall.

Four of the world’s top six players — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem and Roger Federer — skipped the Miami Open this year, giving lesser-publicized players like Sinner and Hurkacz a chance to take center stage.

Sinner was born and raised in Innichen, a Northern Italian ski village in a Germanic province near the Austrian border. The town is known for its spectacular ski runs and the annual International Snow Sculpture Festival. His father, Hanspeter, and mother, Siglinde, met at a ski resort where he was a cook and she was a waitress, jobs they still have today.

“My parents work simple jobs and they know what it’s like to work hard,” Sinner said, explaining his work ethic. “They gave me this mindset, trying your best day after day and don’t lose energy on the court for senseless things because it is hard enough.”

Like most kids from that region, Sinner took up skiing as a toddler. He was a top junior skier from age 8 to 12 and idolized U.S. Olympian Bode Miller before deciding to concentrate on tennis. He moved to northwest Italy to train under coach Ricardo Piatti, whose alumni list includes Djokovic, Ivan Ljubicic, Richard Gasquet and Maria Sharapova.

Over the past two years his ranking leaped from the 800s to No. 31. He will break into the Top 25 with his performance in Miami.

Sinner made headlines at the 2020 French Open, beating U.S. Open finalist Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, in the fourth round before running into Nadal. He continued to quietly climb up the rankings. Two weeks ago, he defeated Bautista Agut in three sets in their opening-round match in Dubai.

Heading into Friday’s match Bautista Agut was coming off big wins over John Isner, 9-7 in a third-set tiebreaker, and over No. 1 seed Daniil Medvedev. But he couldn’t finish off the Italian teen.

Asked what makes Sinner special, Bautista Agut said: “I think he has something special in tough moments. I had chances on the second set, chances on the third set, but he’s a great player, great competitor, and I will try to beat him the next time.”

The Spaniard said Sinner has what it takes to become a top player.

“He has a great future coming up; he has everything,” he said. “He has a big serve, he’s tall, he’s big, he moves well, he has very good groundstrokes. Mentally he’s also great and improving.”

None of the four semifinalists had ever won a title in Miami, so a first-time champion was guaranteed. It could very well be the baby-faced Sinner holding up the trophy on Sunday and taking home the $300,110 first prize — less than a quarter of the purse in non-COVID-19 times, but still a hefty paycheck for a freckle-faced teenager.

In women’s doubles, Japanese team Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara defeated American Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek of Poland 3-6, 7-6 (7-4), 10-2 in the semifinals. They will play in Sunday’s final against the winner of Friday’s late match of American Hayley Carter and Brazilian Luisa Stefani vs. Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Giuliana Olmos of Mexico.