Jannik Sinner knocks off Miami Open defending champ Carlos Alcaraz to reach the final

Pedro Portal/pportal@miamiherald.com
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They may not have their country’s flag attached to their names on the draw or scoreboard because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but longtime Muscovite junior tennis competitors, Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov, were still able to put on a dazzling display of big-boy tennis in Hard Rock Stadium on a breezy, comfortable Friday afternoon.

When it was over, the fourth-seeded Medvedev won for the fourth time in five meetings over his fellow 6-foot-6 compatriot, 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 6-3 to advance to his first Miami Open Masters 1000 final after two consecutive quarterfinal finishes while continuing his 2023 resurgence.

Medvedev, 27, who dropped from No. 1 last August to No. 12 in February, has now reached five consecutive finals that includes three titles: Rotterdam 500, Doha 250 and Dubai 500 (number indicates ranking points for champion). His only loss during the run (23 of 24 match wins) came two weeks ago at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 to top-ranked, 19-year-old prodigy Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, in a 6-3, 6-2 rout.

The rematch will have to wait as Alcaraz, arguably the best player on the planet with apologies to the still idle, unvaccinated Novak Djokovic, was bothered by a hand injury and cramps, before falling 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-2 to 11th-ranked Jannik Sinner, the 21-year-old Italian with warp-speed groundstrokes, in an electrifying three-hour, one-minute evening semifinal victory.

Alcaraz, the defending champion has been dethroned by Sinner, a finalist here in 2021 and winner of seven titles, but no Grand Slams or Masters 1000 events, yet. So, there will be no “Sunshine Double” for Alcaraz, who also saw his 10-match, 21-set winning streak end. In a battle of young heavyweights, it was Sinner earning the TKO, and the loss means that come Monday, Alcaraz will be No. 2 and Djokovic will return to the top of the mountain.

The level of tennis was somewhere in the upper stratosphere as the “now-gen” stars displayed shot-making usually reserved for video games, as rally after rally elicited, gasps and raucous cheering from a packed stadium that included its owner, Stephen Ross, Heat forward Jimmy Butler and Mavericks guard Luka Doncic.

Sinner burst out of the gate to go up 4-1, before Alcaraz’s sophisticated net game (8 of 10 on approaches) brought him all the way back to lead 6-5. However, the Spaniard mixed in several of his nine uncharacteristic double faults and the 10th seed forced a tiebreak.

The slender 6-2 Italian led 4-2 before Alcaraz won the next five points, ending the 77-minute, brilliant first set with a 110-mph ace out wide. He raised his clenched fist and looked to his player’s box that contained his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero.

The level dropped a tad in the second set as the two exchanged early breaks, as Alcaraz sustained a left-hand injury which a trainer attended to. At 4-4, Sinner broke a mistake-prone Alcaraz at love before serving out the set.

In the decisive set, Alcaraz, cramping in both legs, was serving in the 90-100-mph range, nearly 30 miles slower than his norm and his Flash-like speed was severely hindered. That led to a quick break which Sinner never relinquished en route to the victory which he sealed with his 27th winner.

Alcaraz is now 3-3 against Sinner and 3-1 on a hard court, in what pundits are predicting will eventually be a magical No. 1 vs. No. 2 rivalry over the next 15 years.

The 1 p.m. final on Sunday will pit the hottest player on tour, with Medvedev at 28-3 and winner in 23 of his last 24 matches, against Sinner, who is just 4-18 against top-5 players and 0-5 versus Medvedev, all on indoor hard courts, including a three-set loss in Rotterdam earlier this year. Of Medvedev’s 18 titles, including the 2021 US Open and four other Masters 1000 events, 17 have come on a hard court.

“It was a top-level match where we played well with one bad game for me in the second set and one bad game for him in the third when we broke,’’ said Medvedev, who notched 37 winners and 21 unforced errors.

Khachenov, 26, felt he played well enough to beat just about anyone and the match statistics backed him up. He finished with 53 winners to just 11 unforced errors, and won 16 of 19 forays to the net.

“I think against maybe the rest 97 players or more, except maybe Alcaraz, Novak [Djokovic], Daniil, the way they defend, I would be a winner,’’ said Khachanov, who had reached the last two career-best Grand Slam semifinals in a row.

Medvedev and Khachanov, the 16th seed, received good news Friday when Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association informed the ATP and WTA that they would be allowed to play in Wimbledon this year and that last year’s ban had been lifted for all Russian and Belarusian players, who aren’t receiving funding from their countries or state-owned companies.

The players will need to sign “neutrality declarations” and there will be a “zero tolerance approach to any symbols, flags or other actions which support Russia.”

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba ruled the decision as, “immoral.”

While Medvedev and Khachanov were, excited to hear the news, Czech Republic star Petra Kvitova, who won her semifinal Friday, is a two-time Wimbledon champion and a member of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. She agreed with the Ukrainian stance.

“I appreciate that Wimbledon had a tough time last year not giving the [ranking] points, the Belarusian and Russians didn’t play,’’ she said. “And I think they shouldn’t be allowed, actually, in my opinion, either to [the] Olympics. I’m just still a bit on the Ukrainian side of this.”