Jannik Sinner is in a unique position. The Italian, entered after Matteo Berrettini withdrew due to an abdominal injury after playing one match in Turin, has the chance to advance to the semifinals at the ATP Finals as an alternate in the tournament. That is something that no alternate has achieved in the history of the event. Fittingly then, Sinner will need to win well and have some help from the man he beat in his first match to have a chance, but the exciting young Italian can reasonably be the first alternate to make the semifinals, making the most of his opportunity.
The tournament has a unique format with two groups of four players playing a round-robin format, and alternates are needed as a result in case of withdraws due to injury. Each player is ranked in their group based on their record in their three matches played, so it is important that every player gets a chance to play all three matches. Since it is not a bracket like every other week on tour, a bye for a player who is unable to play is not possible.
Every year two alternates are selected to join the eight top players who make the final tournament of the year. These alternates often step in for a match or two when a player pulls out. They compete in that group the original player was in and have the ability to earn rankings points, earn money, and even progress to the next round with multiple wins and some luck.
For alternates to advance, they must play two matches, win those matches, and have a little luck on their side. Every player who does not withdraw plays three matches with a criteria to determine who advances. The first determining criteria is total number of wins. For an alternate, this means that another player must withdraw after their first match so they get two matches and therefore a chance and scoring two wins.
Two wins does not even guarantee qualification, with the next tiebreaker total number of matches played. So if an alternate plays two matches and wins them both, a player who finishes with a 2-1 record will qualify above them. This does not play to Sinner’s advantage, but he still has a route to qualifying with favorable results from other players in the group.
Though the group standings can often be confusing, the path for Sinner into the semifinals is actually fairly straightforward. First, he must win his match against Daniil Medvedev. While this may seem like a tall task it is possible due to the fact that the Russian has already qualified for the next round. With a win over Zverev head-to-head, Medvedev has already clinched first in the group, giving him nothing but money and points to play for.
Both are strong motivators, but not as powerful as the pressure of a must-win match. If Sinner is able to pull off the upset, his two wins will draw him even with Medvedev and above Hubert Hurkacz who has yet to win a match in Milan. If Alexander Zverev beats Hurkacz, he will finish with a 2-1 record and advance over Sinner, However, if Hurkacz tops Zverev, both players will finish with 1-2 records, making Sinner the second qualifier of the group if he can win his match.
If Hurkacz beats Zverev but Sinner loses to Medvedev, the three other players in the group will all be stuck at one win. Unfortunately for Sinner, he would be eliminated based on the matches played criteria even though he had a better win percentage. This rule would be hard to stomach, but is in place to both reward players who qualified by being one of the top eight players in the world, and to avoid any potential issues where an alternate may avoid playing the top player of the group and therefore have a record based on ‘weaker’ opposition.
Sinner has an extremely bright future, and regardless of outcome will be fun for home fans to root for. Tennis firsts seem to be exceedingly rare, especially in the era of the Big Three, so it is exciting whenever a player has a chance to accomplish something never done before. The only question now is: can he find a way to keep his hopes alive in Turin?
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