The Italian overcame his nerves and American Mackenzie McDonald 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 on Sunday to win the Citi Open and became the youngest ATP 500 champion since the category was created in 2009. No other teen has lifted a trophy at the level.
Given the pressure of the moment and McDonald’s grittiness — the home favourite saved 10 set points in the first set and 16 break points in the match — many teens would have struggled to battle through. But Sinner showed little frustration and defied his nerves to remain focused and become the third-youngest champion in tournament history behind Andy Roddick (2001) and Juan Martin del Potro (2008).
“I think there is still much work to do, to be honest. A lot of experience to put in, working hard as we are doing now, and trying to play important matches and important moments of a match,” Sinner said. “Today I think I had a lot of them. I can learn many things [from] today.”
Sinner claimed the biggest title of his career with the loss of just one set in five matches. The fifth seed lost an opportunity to serve for the championship at 5-3 in the third set. But after two hours and 53 minutes, he completed his impressive run at a tournament that has been won by the likes of all-time greats Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors.
“When you see somebody is the youngest or whatever, I don’t put much weight on that. There are a lot of players who have done much, much better than me,” Sinner said. “It’s not about who is the youngest or whatever. I just want to improve, work hard.”
It was anything but easy against McDonald. Sinner showed that not only does he have plenty of weaponry in his physical game, but incredible mental fortitude to fend off disappointment and find a way to win.
In the first set, it seemed Sinner’s firepower would be too much for his opponent to handle. The threat of the Italian’s raw power forced McDonald to make atypical baseline mistakes, and that proved the difference early on. It felt like the American was clawing to avoid letting the match slip away.
But even though he won the opening set, Sinner lost his serve twice in the frame, which was surprising given he had only dropped three service games in his first four matches. McDonald attacked the teen’s kick second serve to try to get on top of rallies, and that paid dividends in the second set.
The American cut down on his errors by dropping further behind the baseline and saved the two break points he faced in the second set. Using the home crowd, McDonald broke and held onto his serve to force a decider in his first ATP Tour final.
That is where the class of Sinner, the 2019 Next Gen ATP Finals champion, showed. This year’s Sofia titlist, who rarely displays emotions on court, let out a massive roar after forcing a volley error from the World No. 107 to break in his first return game of the third set. He sprinted to a 3-0 lead and held two championship points on McDonald’s serve at 5-2.
But like the rest of the match, it was not simple to finish the job. McDonald played aggressive tennis to save those two championship points and broke Sinner when the teen served for the match. It was that same fight that helped McDonald get through long hours of physical therapy and rehabilitation following right hamstring surgery in June 2019.
Sinner did not panic, though. He earned his fifth service break when the American missed a backhand into the net, and the Italian held his arms in the air as a show of both relief and celebration.
“I think it’s tough mentally, because I had a lot of chances. I couldn’t use [them], because first he was playing better in the crucial moments,” Sinner said. “But I tried to work for one more chance and tried to break him like this.”
McDonald was trying to become the first American champion at the Citi Open since Roddick in 2007, and the third-lowest-ranked champion in tournament history.
Did You Know?
This was the 146th ATP 500 event since the category was created. Before Sinner triumphed on Sunday, the youngest titlist at this level was 20-year-old Alexander Zverev, who lifted the Citi Open trophy in 2017.