Aslan Karatsev: Clothes Do Not Maketh This Man

Editor’s Note:This story was first published on 26 March 2021.

“Who told you that?” Aslan Karatsev says with a sheepish grin.

Sitting near the End Zone on the field of Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins and this week’s Miami Open, the amiable, low-key Russian is about to detail how he came to accept some match shirts from Mischa Zverev at the Australian Open.

“I was in the locker room packing my bag after the match and Mischa just asked me if I needed some t-shirts and I said ‘okay’. I also play with adidas so I took it. I had a contract with adidas five years ago so I still had plenty of clothes, but they were not the latest model. Maybe he saw that I played with the old ones.”

This is not a literal rags-to-riches story – Karatsev’s old kit was still holding up – but his career, like his shirts, has definitely taken a turn for the better in the past couple of months. “I don’t really mind which model shirts I play with. But I also think Mischa probably had too much.”

Despite his rapid rise to being one of the hottest players on the planet right now, expect to see Karatsev unpaid and in adidas for the immediate future. Because apparel manufacturers typically finalise budgets and lock in endorsement deals in the fourth quarter, the Russian’s breakout in Q1 of 2021 hasn’t yet been fully rewarded.

“Since the ATP Cup and the Australian Open, we’ve had plenty of offers, but we’re waiting for a bigger offer,” says his newly signed agent Pierre Christen. “A few clothes brands have been in touch. He’ll be worth more if he finishes the year in the Top 10 or 20.

“It has been very busy over the past five weeks, but more so since he won the Dubai title last week. I think a number of people were waiting to see if he could back up his Australian Open run.”

Karatsev had a contract with Head racquets prior to the Australian Open. But the only sponsor pick-up during his dramatic run at Melbourne Park was a patch deal for French cosmetics giant Guinot and its brand Mary Cohr, ahead of his semi-final match with Novak Djokovic.

His stunning rise from World No. 253 at the beginning of the five-month Tour suspension last March to his place inside the Top 30 is the culmination of 10 years of hard work, an improved mental outlook thanks to his coach Yahor Yatsyk, time spent with his Top 10 countrymen at the ATP Cup and a slice of good luck.

Karatsev was down a break of serve in his first-round Australian Open qualifying match in Doha against Brandon Nakashima. He rallied to win that and two more qualifying matches and then had a stroke of fortune on the journey to the year’s first major.

He was originally booked on a charter flight from Doha to Melbourne on which passengers tested positive. Had he been on the original flight, he would have faced a two-week hard lockdown in his hotel room instead of being able to get two weeks of practice with India’s Sumit Nagal.

“I got the ‘healthy’ flight,” Karatsev said. “I was supposed to be on the covid [affected] flight but they made a mistake. There were a few players who were put onto the 5am flight and that was the one without covid. I was lucky. Everything started from there.”

<img src="https://sportblogg.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/karatsev-miami2021-feature2.jpg" alt="Aslan Karatsev“>

The mainstream tennis world first got to know Karatsev during Russia’s run to the ATP Cup title. Top 10 teammates Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev understandably commanded most attention for their unbeaten singles runs, but Karatsev played three doubles matches and was dubbed the team’s ‘secret weapon’ by Medvedev.

Karatsev partially credits his ATP Cup experience to his semi-final run at the Australian Open, which included a comeback from two sets down against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round.

“Being part of ATP Cup gave me confidence to play on a big stage. When the Australian Open started I was nervous in the first round, but after that it became smoother. I felt the game, I felt the shots. Against Felix I was two sets down. That was a tough moment. They asked me in press if I gave myself some talk when I went to the toilet. The answer was ‘I just went to the toilet’. They had fun with that on social media.”

Karatsev also accounted for former World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov in the quarter-finals, before being stopped by eventual champion Djokovic.

That run earned him wild cards into Doha, where he pushed World No. 4 Dominic Thiem to three sets in the second round, and Dubai, where he charged to victory at the ATP 500. Three-set victories over Jannik Sinner in the quarter-finals and Rublev in the semi-finals stood out, especially the latter win over his countryman.

Rublev, who says he plays tennis the way he plays chess, aggressively and by dictating play, was himself outmuscled by Karatsev. One of the cleanest ballstrikers on Tour who can stun opponents with effortless winners even from seemingly neutral court positions, Karatsev left Rublev bemused, clubbing 41 winners and ending the World No. 8’s 23-match win streak at the 500 level.

“My game is to stay close to the baseline and dictate, be aggressive. If I hit winners, that’s good, but it’s not my focus,” said Karatsev, who crushed 27 winners in two sets to beat South African Lloyd Harris in the final.

“Rublev is a special kind of player. Once you stand back against him, it’s done. It’s tough to get from deep behind the baseline back into the court. The plan was to stay close to the line and not give him the position that he likes when he starts to move you. I thought I managed it pretty well.”

Karatsev’s next milestone could be the Top 20, alongside countrymen Medvedev, and Rublev. (Karen Khachanov is No. 22 and knocking on the door.) Medvedev, for one, can see it happening, but is at a loss to explain how we got here. “I think nobody can understand. I’m honest. I think only he can try to explain at least what’s going on,” the two-time major finalist said this week in Miami.

“In Dubai, I watched his matches. He was playing definitely I would say Top 10, Top five level. He beat some amazing guys in amazing ways there. Hopefully, he can keep the momentum going throughout his career. Four Russians almost in the Top 20 is unbelievable.”

While many players have struggled to recover their best form since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Karatsev said that he benefitted from the stoppage.

Karatsev had begun to build momentum at the Challenger level before the Tour was suspended in March, 2020. He then laid down his racquet for the next three months, focusing exclusively on physical fitness (have you seen those calves!) and spending time with friends and family. In June, he went to Minsk for a two-week training block before heading to the United States to play a series of exhibitions.

When the Tour did return, Karatsev won 19 of his first 20 matches at ATP Challenger Tour level, taking titles in Prague and Ostrava.

“I was playing matches every day and that gave me a lot of confidence,” he said. “When the Tour started back up so many players weren’t into it because they didn’t have the matches. Stepping onto the court I already had confidence.”

Born in 1993 in Vladikavkaz, near Russia’s border with Georgia, Karatsev moved with his parents and sister to Israel when he was three. Mother Svetlana is a doctor and father Kazbek played football before focusing on his son’s career. Walking home from the beach one day, the family noticed a tennis centre and took his sister, Zarina, to play. “By the time I was four, I was trying to take the racquet away from her and start to play on the wall,” he said.

“My sister quit after two years, and then I started. All the attention went from my father to me. I started to practise seriously when I was six or seven. I already had a morning session, fitness session and I became No. 1 in Israel. That’s how it started. [Zarina now works in finance in Israel.]

“My father put all his energy into my tennis. He would go with me every morning. But it was tough to travel from Israel and the flights were really expensive. The federation would help with two or three tickets a year, but it wasn’t enough.”

Eventually, a lack of opportunities in Israel forced the family to make a tough decision: Aslan and his father would move back to Russia to further his career.

“It was a difficult to move away from your mother and sister when you are only 12. I flew back to Israel a couple of times in the first few months to visit them. But I took the chance because I found a sponsor in Russia.”

Despite the big move, Karatsev said that he would practise only once a day from the age of 12-15. “It wasn’t like professional.”

At 15 he settled in Taganrog, close to Rostov-on-Don in south-west Russia, and began working with Aleksander Kuprin and Ivan Potapov.

At 21, former Russian pro Dmitry Tursunov started to help Karatsev, taking him to Halle, Germany, providing financial support and showing him “the right way to practise”. Karatsev also spent time in Barcelona and a few months in Croatia before deciding “to stop with Europe”.

Karatsev met his current coach at an ITF event in France three years ago and credits the turnaround in his mental approach to Yatsyk, who is not in Miami this week after failing to secure a visa into the United States.

“I had many situations when the match wouldn’t go the way I wanted and I’d be breaking racquets, talking to my coach, talking to the chair umpire, blaming the court. I should have been looking into myself to look for a way to deal with the situation. You can’t play good every day, so you have to deal with those situations.”

Heading into Miami, the FedEx ATP Race To Turin is taking shape, with little surprise in the order of the Top four: Djokovic, Medvedev, Rublev and Stefanos Tsisiptas. Who’s in fifth? Why, Aslan Karatsev, of course, with a 770-point buffer over eighth-placed Grigor Dimitrov and Matteo Berrettini. What seemed inconceivable at the beginning of the year – a place in the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin – is now very much a possibility for Karatsev.

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“Had you told me this I would not have believed it,” he said. “You are just [kidding[ yourself. With success, you never know when it’s coming, but I always believed I could make it. Yahor kept telling me: ‘You have to be strong mentally, you have to build your body stronger’. He was pushing me every day, saying I was better than the Challenger level.

“But [this success] didn’t come in one moment. We worked at it for 10 years, going back to the juniors. There have been a lot of ups and downs in the last three years. We have put in a lot of hard work.”

Karatsev makes his debut at the Miami Open presented by Itau Saturday against Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin, third match on Court 4.

Learn more about Aslan Karatsev

Hurkacz Makes Top 20 Debut, Mover Of Week

No. 16 Hubert Hurkacz, +21 (Career High)
Hurkacz became the first Polish man to lift an ATP Masters 1000 singles title at the Miami Open presented by Itau. The 24-year-old, whose previous best Masters 1000 result was a quarter-final run at the 2019 BNP Paribas Open, defeated five consecutive seeded opponents from the third round to collect the biggest title of his career.

Hurkacz overcame Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic to reach the quarter-finals, before stunning Top 4 seeds Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev to advance to the championship match. The Pole needed one hour and 45 minutes to overcome #NextGenATP Italian Jannik Sinner in the final and capture his second trophy of the season. Hurkacz’s run extended his unbeaten record in Florida this season to 10-0, following his triumph at the Delray Beach Open by VITACOST.com in January. Read & Watch Highlights.

View FedEx ATP Rankings

No. 23 Jannik Sinner, +8 (Career High)
On his tournament debut in Miami, Sinner battled his way through to his maiden Masters 1000 final. The 19-year-old survived three-set encounters against Karen Khachanov and Roberto Bautista Agut to reach his second championship match of 2021. The Great Ocean Road Open champion, who owns a 14-5 record this season, became only the fourth teenager to reach the Miami final in the tournament’s 36-year history. The previous three teenage Miami finalists — Andre Agassi (1990), Rafael Nadal (2005) and Novak Djokovic (2007) — all reached the No. 1 position in the FedEx ATP Rankings.

No. 65 Sebastian Korda, +22 (Career High)
Korda claimed the two biggest wins of his career to reach his first Masters 1000 quarter-final in Miami. The Delray Beach runner-up continued his fine run of 2021 form in his home state with his first Top 20 win against Fabio Fognini and soon claimed his maiden Top 10 victory against Diego Schwartzman in the Round of 16. The #NextGenATP American is the first player from his country to reach 10 wins on the ATP Tour this season.

No. 75 Emil Ruusuvuori, +8 (Career High)
In just his second Masters 1000 appearance, the 22-year-old survived three consecutive deciding sets in Miami. Ruusuvuori overcame #NextGenATP Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, third seed Alexander Zverev and Mikael Ymer, before Sinner ended his run in the Round of 16.

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Other Notable Top 100 Movers
No. 63 Gilles Simon, +6
No. 70 Pablo Andujar, -9
No. 91 Gianluca Mager, +11
No. 97 James Duckworth, +7

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Sinner: 'I'm Not Here For Finals; I'm Here To Win'

Jannik Sinner fell short of becoming the youngest Miami Open presented by Itau champion in tournament history on Sunday against Hubert Hurkacz, but it wasn’t all bad news for the #NextGenATP Italian.

On Monday, the 19-year-old sensation will climb to a career-high No. 23 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, becoming just the sixth teen since 2010 to break into the Top 30.

“I control everything. I know [in] what position I am, where I’m going to be,” Sinner said. “But for me, the main focus now is what I showed in this tournament: that I improved from the last tournament. Obviously when you get a little bit of confidence, it’s a little bit easier. But you have to work hard to go deep in tournaments, especially in big tournaments.

“For me, improvement is the most important thing. I still have to talk with my team [about] why I lost, what they think, where we have to work… But I think I have to improve on every single part of my game physically, mentally, everything. Then we will see what’s coming.”

TOP 30 TEENS – Age When Cracking The Top 30 (since 2010)

Player Top 30 Breakthrough Date/Ranking Age
Felix Auger-Aliassime (CAN) 29 April 2019, No. 30 18 years, 8 months, 21 days
Denis Shapovalov (CAN) 14 May 2018, No. 25 19 years, 1 month
Alexander Zverev (GER) 20 June 2016, No. 27 19 years, 2 months
Bernard Tomic (AUS) 31 May 2012, No. 28 19 years, 7 months, 10 days
Jannik Sinner (ITA) 5 April 2021, No. 23 19 years, 7 months, 20 days
Alex de Minaur (AUS) 7 January 2019, No. 29 19 years, 10 months, 19 days

Focussing on improving doesn’t mean Sinner is not disappointed that he was unable to become the sixth teen ATP Masters 1000 champion.

“I think it has been a good week anyway,” Sinner said. “But obviously I’m not here for making finals. I’m here to win tournaments. Today was not my day, [I] accept that. But it’s going back to work and then we will see what I can do on the clay.”

The good news is that the match was not out of his control. In some key moments, Sinner made some mistakes. If the teen had been totally dominated, that would have been more concerning to the Italian. He felt the action was on his racquet.

“I think for me today is a tough day, to be honest, because losing the final here for me is not easy. But I was deciding the whole week what to do with the ball. For that, I’m happy,” Sinner said. “Today went the wrong way. Today you win or you learn. When you’re 19 and playing [the] final here, obviously it’s tough, and I wanted to win.”

Sinner admitted that he “was a bit nervous”. but the 2019 Next Gen ATP Finals champion felt the nerves because he really wanted to lift the trophy. In the end, he simply lost to the better player on the day, and had nothing but congratulations for Hurkacz.

“I think I can learn many things today. For me now it’s tough to talk about the match,” Sinner said. “From the baseline, I was deciding what to do. Today I made a couple of mistakes in important moments, yes, but I was dictating, so I’m happy about that.

“And now [I will go] back to work and now the clay season is on, so I don’t want to waste time today. I think I can learn many things. Next week already is another tournament. [I’ve] got to be ready.”

How Hurkacz Stuck Sinner In The “Backhand Cage”

One hour. One groundstroke winner. One new trophy for the mantlepiece.

Hubert Hurkacz defeated Jannik Sinner 7-6(4), 6-4 in the Miami Open final on Sunday with a clever neutralising strategy focussed on locking the young Italian in the “backhand cage” and throwing away the key. Hurkacz claimed his maiden ATP Masters 1000 title by putting a mesmerising amount of balls in the court and letting Sinner swing for the fences and miss.

Absorb. Repel. Defend. Counter. Straight out of a Rocky movie.

The match was 56 minutes old when Hurkacz hit his first groundstroke winner to bring up set point in the first set. It was a Serve +1 forehand winner struck at the service line from a weak return of serve. It was an outlier. Hurkacz would finish the match with 10 rally winners while hardly going for any. Ironically, Sinner finished with 12 rally winners while trying to light it up on almost every point.

Hurkacz’s primary strategy was to play as much backhand-to-backhand tennis as possible through the Ad court. The following Hawk-Eye graphics clearly show the engine room of Hurkacz’s victory.

2021 Miami Final: Backhand Direction

Sinner Backhand Placement

Hurkacz Backhand PlacementHurkacz hit 56 per cent of his rally backhands crosscourt to the outer third of the court. Sinner hit 57 per cent back crosscourt, making backhand-to-backhand exchanges through the Ad court the dominant rally direction for the match. Hurkacz had very little interest going backhand line to Sinner’s potent forehand, only hitting 13 per cent of his backhands to this specific location.

In many ways, Hurkacz’s four-part strategy was a throwback to how matches traditionally unfolded in our sport.

Part 1 – Target the opponent’s backhand with a barrage of groundstrokes. Make it “overheat”.

Part 2 – The opponent’s forehand is forced to go for too much to cover for the ailing backhand.

Part 3 – The server now feels pressure to end points early, and consequently misses too much.

Part 4 – The opponent loses their way mentally, unable to formulate a winning game plan.

Chip away at the backhand first. Then the forehand and serve consequently self-destruct. Once you reach the mind, it’s game over. Sinner said as much in his post-match interview.

“Well, I made some unforced errors. I made a few or a couple of mistakes in the tie-break. Then I was not serving well, especially in the beginning of the second set, and not returning deep enough,” Sinner said.

2021 Miami Final: Forehand Direction

Sinner Forehand Placement

Hurkacz ForehandThe Hawk-Eye graphic above adds another layer of clarity to Hurkacz’s “backhand cage” masterplan. Hurkacz directed 54 per cent of his forehands wide to Sinner’s backhand in the Ad court, which is almost the same as the 56 per cent from his backhand wing to the same location. Sinner’s primary target was to hit his forehand wide at Hurkacz’s forehand, where he went 52 per cent of the time. But instead of entertaining forehand-to-forehand exchanges, Hurkacz constantly changed direction and made Sinner have to hit another backhand.

Sinner struck 31 per cent of rally forehands from inside the baseline, but just 15 per cent from the backhand wing came from inside the baseline. Sinner’s forehand was more lethal, which is why Hurkacz limited exposure to that side. Overall, both players hit more backhands from the back of the court, which proved a key advantage for the Pole.

Hurkacz Rally Shots
• Forehand = 47.7% (137)
• Backhand = 52.3% (150)

Sinner Rally Shots
• Forehand = 47.9% (142)
• Backhand = 52.1% (154)

Sinner’s average groundstroke speed was 76 miles per hour, which was considerably harder than 70 miles per hour from Hurkacz. How you hit the ball matters. Where you hit it matters more.

– All graphics thanks to Hawk-Eye Innovations/ATP Media

Hurkacz: ‘I Had A Big Belief In Myself’ In Miami

Hubert Hurkacz’s signature grin was wider than ever after the Miami Open presented by Itau final, where he claimed the biggest title of his career with a victory over Jannik Sinner on Sunday.

He had to play the best tennis of his life to defeat his good friend and occasional doubles partner in the final, after defeating second seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and fourth seed Andrey Rublev along the way. It was Hurkacz’s first time defeating back-to-back Top 10 players at the same tournament, improving his record against the elite group to 7-10.

“I played [some] of the best tennis I’ve ever played,” Hurkacz said in his post-match press conference. “I was solid throughout the whole tournament, and I was able to get through each round, [and] was even more pumped for the next round. I think that’s something special for me.

“My tennis is getting better. We work hard with my coach, [Craig Boynton], and I’m super happy that it happened here. We still need to improve a couple of things and just try to get better each day.”

For the 24 year old from Poland, the Miami event is the closest thing to his home turf on the ATP Tour. Hurkacz lives and trains part-time in Tampa, where Boynton is based, and he started the 2021 season with a victory at the nearby Delray Beach Open by VITACOST.com.

“Last year I spent so much time in Florida,” Hurkacz said. “I was here like almost half of the year. We were working pretty hard, and I think I’m used to the conditions. I think [that’s] been part of the success I had here in Florida.”

His victory in Miami made him the first player from his country to win an ATP Masters 1000 title, adding another page in the incredible chapter of Polish tennis history. In 2020, Iga Swiatek became the first Polish Grand Slam singles champion with her victory at Roland Garros – a milestone moment that Hurkacz took inspiration from in his own Miami run.

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“I was super proud of Iga. What she has done there in [the] French Open was amazing,” Hurkacz recalled. “I think that gave the belief for us: for me, myself, and the younger players in Poland that it’s possible to win those big titles.

“Hopefully with my game, I can also inspire some people in Poland and hopefully they enjoyed it there. I’m super, super proud to be Polish, and I’m thankful for all the support that I get.”

Hurkacz will depart from South Florida with a 10-0 record in the state, and a new career-high No. 16 spot in the FedEx ATP Rankings. With self-belief at a sky high, Hurkacz is hoping to continue the positive momentum for the European clay swing and beyond.

“I had a big belief in myself from the beginning of the season,” Hurkacz said. “Winning the tournament like this gives you extra motivation and self-confidence that, okay, you’re able to do it. Like, you came through some really hard moments here, and you just try to do it.”

Pole Position: Hurkacz Claims First Masters 1000 Title In Miami

Hubert Hurkacz became Poland’s first ATP Masters 1000 champion on Sunday after taking down 19-year-old Jannik Sinner 7-6(4), 6-4 in the Miami Open presented by Itau final.

The 24-year-old needed one hour and 45 minutes to clinch the biggest ATP Tour title of his career, and his second of the year after lifting the trophy at the Delray Beach Open by VITACOST.com. The victory extended Hurkacz’s unbeaten 2021 run in South Florida to 10-0.

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“Last year I spent here almost half a year,” Hurkacz said in an on-court interview. “I was practising in the hottest weather during the spring and summer here, so I think that helped me a lot playing now in Florida, especially in these pretty tough conditions here, because it was a little bit slow here. The wind was blowing from side to side sometimes, so it’s huge.” 

His opponent and occasional doubles partner Sinner, the 21st seed, was trying to become the youngest Miami men’s champion in history at 19 years and seven months. The pair have teamed up to play doubles twice this season – including a quarter-final appearance at last month’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships – but on Sunday they faced each other in singles for the first time.

“Hubi, many congratulations for this week and a half,” said the #NextGenATP Italian. “I think you showed what talent you have. I’m more proud what kind of person you are. I have to say [you are] maybe my best friend on Tour. Maybe we should play more doubles together.”

It was the Polish player’s experience that ultimately made the difference, with 26th seed Hurkacz looking calm as he powered his way to an early break in each set. Hurkacz dictated with his forehand and forced errors off the Sinner racquet as he took a 3-0 lead. Sinner needed a few games to settle into the contest, but he lifted his level emphatically to get the break back.

Hurkacz kept Sinner under pressure, creating 11 break opportunities throughout the match, and converting on seven occasions. One of those breaks came at 6-5: with Sinner serving for the set the Pole broke to love as he outlasted Sinner from the baseline to send them into the tie-break.

It would prove to be a pivotal game for Sinner, who racked up 39 unforced errors throughout the match, including 28 in the first set alone. The Italian was never able to bounce back after dropping the first set, and Hurkacz powered his way to a 4-0 lead in the second set with a double break.

Although Sinner managed to fight back one of the breaks to narrow the gap to 4-3, he was unable to make any more inroads against the big Hurkacz serve. The Pole didn’t face a break point for the next three games as he served out his third ATP Tour title in Miami.

“The balls felt slow when I went to serve,” Hurkacz said of the final game. “Obviously a tough point. You really want to get a couple of free points and Jannik’s an amazing returner. It was a tough game.”

With the victory, Hurkacz will break into the Top 20 in the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time, moving from No. 37 to a career-high No. 16 on Monday. Sinner is also projected to reach a new career-high of his own, rising to No. 23 in the FedEx ATP Rankings.

Fashion Photographer Captures Miami Moments With Tsitsipas, Rublev & More

Los Angeles-based Czech fashion photographer Radka Leitmeritz turned her lens to the tennis courts throughout the Miami Open presented by Itau for a series of behind-the-scenes portraits featuring ATP Tour and WTA Tour players. 

Leitmeritz’s evocative work has previously featured in the pages and covers of international fashion magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, L’Officiel and Elle. Now, ATP Tour stars like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Grigor Dimitrov, Andrey Rublev and Diego Schwartzman (pictured above) have been her muses in South Florida.

“I think the misconception coming from the fashion world is that everyone I photograph is going to look like a top model,” Leitmeritz said of working with tennis players. “Everyone is beautiful and I like to capture something really personal about them in a different environment.

“I’m free from the history or knowing too much about them. This is a privileged situation. Shooting a person who is very famous that you don’t know is the best. I just see them, I feel a certain energy.”

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Her keen lens caught players like Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov on their way to the practice court, and also captured quiet moments with Daniil Medvedev, Tommy Paul, Aslan Karatsev and more around the Hard Rock Stadium grounds.

Leitmeritz also photographed WTA Tour stars including Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Coco Gauff. See more images at WTATennis.com.

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Secrets To Sinner's Surge: Dinner With Sharapova, Quarantining With Rafa

Jannik Sinner is the hottest young star in men’s tennis. On Sunday, the 19-year-old will have a chance to become the youngest champion in Miami Open presented by Itau history when he plays Hubert Hurkacz. To understand the teen’s rise, you must know that winning has not been his priority.

In September 2019, the #NextGenATP star was eating dinner at a restaurant in Dolceacqua, Italy, less than an hour’s drive from Monte Carlo. Also at the table was his coach, Riccardo Piatti. More notable attendees were former World No. 1s Maria Sharapova and Marat Safin. Sharapova had recently started working with Piatti.

It was a night of friends sharing stories and simply enjoying the evening. But Sinner, who was two when Sharapova won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2004, was in attendance by design according to Piatti.

“I wanted Jannik to understand the mentality of a No. 1. Maria has priorities,” Piatti told ATPTour.com. “When she is on the court, she is watching the ball, hitting the ball and doing everything perfect. When she plays points, she’s focussed to play the points. When she’s off the court, she’s focussed on the fitness part, physical part. When she finishes everything, she’s social.

“Maria is an example that she has a great mentality to be a champion.”

Up until that point, Sinner was still relatively unknown outside of hardcore fans. The teen had not yet cracked the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings, nor had he competed in the Next Gen ATP Finals. But Piatti was desperate for his charge to spend as much time around champions as possible to learn even the smallest lessons from them.

“It’s not me explaining [a lesson], but another one like Nadal or Maria,” Piatti said. “He saw the mentality from these players. Maria was very, very important for me and for him.”

Less than two months later, Sinner captured the Next Gen ATP Finals trophy as a wild card and then won his third ATP Challenger Tour title the following week in Ortisei. Although he enjoys winning, that has never been his biggest focus. In nearly every press conference he participates in, Sinner tells reporters about how he is focussed on improving and the “long road” ahead of him.

That is why Piatti, who has worked with the likes of Ivan Ljubicic and Richard Gasquet, was so excited when he got a call from Carlos Moya ahead of this year’s trip to Australia. The Spaniard wanted to see if Sinner would be Nadal’s quarantine practice partner.

“Of course I was very happy, because you need to live with these guys. These guys are quite simple and focussed about what they are doing and Jannik likes [this] and he understands that Rafa is quite similar to him. The only difference is he won 20 Slams. Small difference,” Piatti said, cracking a laugh. “He understands, ‘Okay, if I do everything correct and I’m young and I need to continue like this, I can reach some of my dreams.’ It was in the perfect moment of his career.

“I think that these 14 days for Jannik were perfect to understand Rafa’s mind.”

However shocking it is, the Italian has only been fully focussed on tennis since he was 14. It wasn’t until then that he moved to Piatti’s academy in Bordighera from San Candido — which is near the Austrian border — and moved on from skiing.

“That was kind of a life-changer for me, because I never played tennis. I only played two times a week tennis. When I came there, I practised every day, morning and afternoon,” Sinner said. “For me, that was very tough in the beginning, so that’s what helped me, just working hard every day and [trying not to] lose energy on court, because [your day is] already tough. If you lose extra energy without any sense, it’s even tougher.”

Sinner is a sponge. If he wins, great. If he learns, even better. That is part of the reason Sinner has quickly become one of the calmest players on Tour, showing great maturity despite his age. Another reason behind this, according to Piatti, is his skiing background.

“If you ski or you make some race, you understand immediately that you need to be concentrated and if you make a mistake, you are out. In tennis, he was thinking that was the game,” Piatti said. “He liked tennis because he can make a mistake and then immediately come back and play again… he’s coming from a small village and his parents are good workers. He knows that everybody needs to work and if they want something, they need to do very well.”

Sinner comes from a humble family. Both of his parents work in a restaurant. His father Johann is a chef, and his mother Siglinde is a waitress.

“I saw that he was playing well, but what took my attention was outside the court. He was a 14-year-old kid, but he controlled the mind of a young man of 17, 18, 19,” Piatti said. “Immediately you see these kinds of kids. Jannik was like that. He has the personality to stay with everybody, so he was quite mature. I was focussed on that and after that I tried to help build his game.”

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Will Hurkacz Or Sinner Triumph? Friends Turn Foes In Miami Final

During professional tennis’ five-month suspension last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Piatti would choose at least two matches per week for Sinner to watch. He didn’t want his charge to want the world’s best playing well, though.

“I showed not when Novak was playing well, but when Novak was playing badly. That was important for me,” Piatti said.

It was about figuring out how champions manage their tough moments and still win. Sinner has already learned from some of his own experiences. At last year’s US Open, the Italian let slip a two-set lead against Karen Khachanov, falling in a fifth-set tie-break. In the second half of that clash, he was clearly cramping. Afterwards, he called Piatti to ask what went wrong and if he wasn’t fit enough. Piatti believes it was the mental stress and hydration — or lack thereof — that led him to cramp, not his fitness. Sinner still managed to find a way to nearly win the match, and he learned from that.

A similar situation happened in Miami when he played Khachanov again. After losing a physically gruelling first set in the Florida heat, Sinner appeared headed out of the tournament. Instead, he found a way to win. Now, he is on the verge of becoming just the sixth teen to lift a Masters 1000 trophy. Win or lose, though, Piatti’s goals are much bigger.

“Of course, winning Slams and becoming No. 1. I spoke with him already that I already had two players, Milos Raonic and Ivan Ljubicic No. 3. Now the goal is different,” Piatti said. “I want someone [to accomplish] more and this project started many years ago. It is not just what is going to [happen] tomorrow [in Miami].”

Sinner is beginning to lose the element of surprise on Tour. Although he clearly has the game to compete against the world’s best — in last year’s Roland Garros quarter-finals, the Italian even went blow for blow in many rallies against Nadal before losing in straight sets — opponents will begin to learn his tendencies.

Roger Federer when he won Milan the first time is not the Roger Federer playing now and it’s the same for Djokovic and Rafa. They’re improving a lot and they are changing a lot,” Piatti said. “I think Jannik has this kind of potential.”

Tomorrow, the world will see if Sinner is ready for Masters 1000 glory. But only time will tell just how many titles the Italian will rack up. For now, Piatti just wants his player to continue learning everything he can, even if it’s just by sitting at a dinner table.

“[This final is] an important moment, but not the last moment. It’s part of what he needs to do,” Piatti said. “I’m very happy that it came now, but the season is long and the process is long.”

Will Hurkacz Or Sinner Triumph? Friends Turn Foes In Miami Final

It’s safe to say that few predicted Hubert Hurkacz and Jannik Sinner would meet in the final of the first ATP Masters 1000 event of the season. But both men have a massive opportunity in Sunday’s Miami Open presented by Itau championship clash and the big question is, who will take advantage of the moment?

Two of the nicest guys on Tour will step on Grandstand in South Florida for the biggest match of their young careers Sunday, but only one can walk off as the winner. Hurkacz and Sinner have never competed against one another, nor has either player previously reached a Masters 1000 final. But the two-time doubles partners will turn into rivals, at least for a day.

“Jannik is a great person. I think like it’s super, super calm and super chill, and also he’s good person. He’s a really nice guy and he really wants it hard, [he] competes to win,” Hurkacz said. “He’s a really, really great guy. The results that he has [are] obviously because of his hard work.”

<img src="https://sportblogg.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/hurkacz-sinner-doubles.jpg" alt="Hubert Hurkacz, Jannik Sinner“>
Photo Credit: Peter Staples/ATP Tour
The Miami opponents count each other as friends. But they have to put their friendship aside and focus on the task at hand. A win on Sunday will be the biggest of the champion’s career. Although Hurkacz and Sinner have both enjoyed incredible runs thus far, there is still plenty at stake.

Sinner is just the fourth teen to reach the Miami final. The other three who have accomplished the feat — Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — have all climbed to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. A victory would make the #NextGenATP Italian the youngest titlist in tournament history.

“It’s a great result here,” Sinner said. “But first, I have one more match in front of me.”

The 19-year-old is the youngest Masters 1000 finalist since Nadal triumphed at the 2005 Mutua Madrid Open. He isn’t allowing himself to get wrapped up in the attention he is receiving, though. While the teen is happy that his achievements are putting him in elite company, Sinner is fully focussed on beating Hurkacz.

“We came here I think with the right mentality, with the right mindset. We always go to every tournament to win, trying to win as many matches as possible,” Sinner said. “Some weeks you do better and some weeks you do a little bit worse, but I think I have a good team behind me who can show me many, many things.”

Teenage ATP Masters 1000 Champions

Sinner knows Hurkacz will be a difficult opponent, telling Tennis Channel on Friday that, “Hurkacz has [had] a very good run here. He can play very, very good.”

The Polish No. 1 has dismissed back-to-back Top 10 opponents, eliminating World No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas and World No. 8 Andrey Rublev. It has been an impressive road to the final considering he began the week having lost five of his previous seven matches.

“Obviously I was just trying to work on my game and play my best tennis,” Hurkacz said. “Luckily and happily, I’m here in the finals now.”

Stats Entering The Final

 Stats  Jannik Sinner  Hubert Hurkacz
 Aces  14  51
 First-Serve Pts Won  69%  77%
 Second-Serve Pts Won  57%  53%
 Break Points Saved  74% (25/34)  78% (21/27)
 Break Points Converted  44% (18/41)  31% (10/32)

It should be an interesting tactical match. Sinner is one of the cleanest hitters on the ATP Tour and although Hurkacz is 6’5” and can play aggressively — as he showed against Rublev and Tsitsipas — he excels with his movement. Some have compared the Pole to former World No. 1 Andy Murray. Wojtek Fibak, the only other Polish ATP Tour titlist, who reached the Top 10 in singles and doubles, expects a good match on Sunday.

“They are very similar. They have all the same characteristics: serve, backhand, forehand, movement, tall guys, big serves. Maybe the second serve of Hubert is a bit better, more consistent. And I think Hubert has more experience, because he’s been on the Tour longer,” Fibak told ATPTour.com. “Tomorrow I think will be a bit closer because of all the weapons Sinner has. He has the same weapons as Hubert. He knows how to play at the net… he has the same talent and he’s working hard, but he’s only 19.”

The battle could come down to who is more clutch in the big moments. Hurkacz and Sinner have saved 78 and 74 per cent of the break points they have faced this tournament, respectively. Will the Pole shine for his country, or will Sinner continue his rapid rise?

“I’m happy about what I was able to do this week,” Sinner said. “There is one more match in front of me, so I’m trying to play my tennis.”

Hurkacz: ‘Now I'm In The Moment’ Ahead Of Miami Final

In a battle between two first-time ATP Masters 1000 finalists, 26th seed Hubert Hurkacz knows that he will have to put friendship and camaraderie aside for a shot at the Miami Open presented by Itau title.

After enjoying an under-the-radar run in Miami, Hurkacz burst into the spotlight on Friday with a stunner over fourth seed Andrey Rublev in straight sets. It was the first time the 24-year-old Pole has won back-to-back matches against Top 10 players in the same tournament, after defeating second seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-final. 

“I think now I’m in the moment,” Hurkacz said in his post-match press conference. “I’m just trying, and obviously super happy to be where I am now, but now we try to prepare as best as we can with [coach Craig Boynton] for that final match on Sunday.”

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Hurkacz Halts Rublev To Reach First ATP Masters 1000 Final In Miami

He will meet a familiar face in that championship match – but it’s one that Hurkacz will be more used to seeing on his side of the net, as the Pole is set to take on 19-year-old Jannik Sinner for the first time.

Good friends, frequent practice partners and occasionally a doubles team, Hurkacz and Sinner have already shared the court at two tournaments since the start of the year, racking up a 3-2 record on the season.

How To Watch

“We played doubles together last week in Dubai,” Hurkacz said, grinning in an on-court interview. “Now we’re playing in the final of a Masters 1000 event, so it’s going to be a fun match.”

The #NextGenATP Italian has called Hurkacz one of his best friends on court, and the Pole had some kind words of his own for the fast-rising teen ahead of their battle.

“Jannik is a great person. I think like [he’s] super, super calm and super chill, and also he’s a good person,” Hurkacz said. “We joke around. We are good friends, so I wish him well.”

Hurkacz is looking for his third ATP Tour title and the biggest of his career in Miami. The Pole began the season on a tear, triumphing at the Delray Beach presented by VITACOST.com. But he hit a ‘skid’ in the weeks that followed, and had struggled to return to his best tennis heading into the first Masters 1000 event of the year.

Even after a milestone fortnight in South Florida – where he’s racked up a nine-match winning streak, including his run in Delray Beach – the most important moment for Hurkacz came early in the tournament. After a tough battle in the opening round, the Pole sealed more than just a confidence-boosting win over Denis Shapovalov in the second: it was the first time he closed out back-to-back victories in four tournaments.

“In the first round I beat Denis Kudla, but [it was] obviously… [a] close match [that] I won in the tie-breaker the first set,” he reflected. “But after that, Denis Shapovalov – [he] beat me the week before in Dubai.

“I think every single match was very tough. [I am] super pumped I was able to come through all of those matches.”