By: Ben Raby (www.twitter.com/benraby31)
Over the past 20 years, the Citi Open has served as a personal playground of sorts for several of the game’s brightest young stars.
Before they were Grand Slam champions, Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro won Washington titles as teenagers. A 22-year-old Sloane Stephens won her maiden WTA title in Washington in 2015- two years before winning the US Open. Sascha Zverev was already a two-time DC champion by the time he was 21.
Now 19-year-old Jannik Sinner is the latest rising star to shine in DC.
The youngest entrant in this year’s 48-player field was ultimately the last man standing. Sinner outlasted American Mackenzie McDonald 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 in a marathon final Sunday evening on Stadium Court.
When the dust settled after 2 hours and 52 minutes, Sinner emerged as the third youngest male champion in the Citi Open’s 52-year history.
“I’m very, very happy about this tournament and the win today,” said Sinner, the ATP Tour’s highest ranked teenager, who will ascend to a career-best No.15 in the world.
“But I’m not looking if I’m the youngest whatever, because the road is long. I have goals and I still have to do everything, to be honest.”
In other words, like the past DC champions who used the Citi Open as a springboard to future titles, Sinner may be an even more decorated player when he defends his DC crown in 2022.
“I just want to improve, working hard,” he said. “I’ve won three [career] titles, but it doesn’t mean everything. My mindset, I’m ready for the next tournament.”
Sinner turns 20 next Monday, but the 6-foot-2 Italian speaks and carries himself with a veteran-like maturity. Throughout the week, as he marched towards the final without dropping a set, Sinner displayed a composure not often seen from relatively inexperienced players on Tour.
That poise was among the keys Sunday.
With much of the home crowd rallying behind McDonald, the underdog American saved 10 set points across multiple games in the opening stanza. Whereas most young players might crumble in that instance, Sinner kept his cool and finally closed out the set on his 11th attempt.
After McDonald evened the match at a set apiece, Sinner looked to be in control in the third. An early break gave Sinner a 3-0 lead. With McDonald serving at 2-5, Sinner had two championship points. The pesky McDonald, who himself showed plenty of fortitude this week, saved them both.
Given the opportunity to serve for the title at 5-3, Sinner couldn’t convert.
“It was a little bit of a roller coaster, to be honest,” Sinner later conceded.
But as McDonald clawed his way back in the decisive set, the pressure seemingly never got to Sinner. He’d eventually earn his fifth break of the match when McDonald sent a backhand into the net on match point No.3.
A relieved Sinner raised his arms in triumph.
“It was tough mentally because I had a lot of chances,” Sinner said. “I couldn’t use it, because he was playing better in the crucial moments. But I tried to work for one more chance… I just tried to stay there. I tried to somehow stay calm and work for my chances.”
Like Sinner, McDonald also showed plenty of resiliency in extending the final as he did. The 26-year-old was playing his sixth match in as many days, including a three-set semifinal win on Saturday that spanned 2 hours and 46 minutes.
“It’s been a long week,” McDonald told Patrick McEnroe in a post-match on-court interview. “I had some tough matches. I dug as deep as I could. Obviously, Jannik is a great young player and he pushed me really hard today. I think I left it all out there. I’m pretty happy with my performance.”
McDonald began the week as the world No.107, but thanks to his maiden appearance in an ATP Tour final, the UCLA alum will move to No.64.
It will be McDonald’s highest ranking since May 2019- just before he underwent surgery for a serious hamstring injury that sidelined him for seven months and had lingering impacts on his game and his schedule once he returned.
“The whole journey, coming back, I’m so grateful I’m here,” he said, “and being here such a big, prestigious tournament in front of so many people. I’ve put in a lot of hard work and, honestly, it’s been a great week for me. I’m super happy with my performance. I’m just going to keep grinding and maybe win a title one day.”