Rafael Nadal celebrates victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Nitto ATP Finals (PA Images)
Rafael Nadal kept his ATP Finals semifinal hopes alive with a comeback victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas.
World no. 1 Rafael Nadal did all he could to secure a place in the semifinals of the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals as he battled to another comeback victory, this time over Stefanos Tsitsipas.
While Nadal never trailed in the scoreline anywhere near as badly as he did against Daniil Medvedev, Nadal still had to work very hard to subdue a brilliant opponent, eventually prevailing 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-5.
At two hours and 52 minutes, the match was the longest of the tournament so far.
Nadal must now await the outcome of the final round-robin match in Group Andre Agassi, between Medvedev and defending champion Alexander Zverev, to learn whether he will face Roger Federer in Saturday’s semifinals or has played the last ATP Tour event of his season.
Tsitsipas, the first Greek player to qualify for the year-end championship and at 21 the youngest player in the elite eight-man field, had already secured his place in Saturday’s semifinals after victories over Medvedev and Zverev earlier in the week. But there was no hint of a tactical decision to compete at anything less than full tilt in a bid to save energy for tomorrow’s semifinal match, which will pit him against either Federer or Dominic Thiem. Tsitsipas’s audacious performance will have left a significant impression on the spectators at the O2 Arena, even if it ends up having a negative impact on his chances in Saturday’s semifinals.
Nadal’s tournament, meanwhile, has been all about comebacks. After pulling out of the Paris Masters at the semifinal stage due to an abdominal injury, Nadal’s chances of competing at the ATP Finals – an event at which he has appeared all-too-rarely in recent years – were put in jeopardy, and when he lost 2-6, 4-6 to Zverev in his opening round-robin match, many wondered if he would skip the rest of the tournament. Instead, Nadal pulled off a remarkable comeback from 1-5 down in the deciding set against Medvedev, admittedly with a hefty helping hand from the temperamental Russian, to get his first win under his belt and despite having already secured the year-end world no. 1 ranking for a fifth time, thanks to Novak Djokovic’s failure to progress beyond the round-robin stages, battled for almost three hours before subduing Tsitsipas in a bid to keep his semifinal hopes alive.
Nadal led the head-to-head 4-1 coming into the match but Tsitsipas has been making a habit of overturning losing head-to-heads this week and it was the Greek who looked the sharper and more aggressive player in the first set. After Tsitsipas was pushed to deuce in his opening service game, neither man could get a foothold on return with six points lost on serve by each through the first ten games, and just one more apiece on the way to a tie-break.
But in that tie-break it was Nadal who looked like the considerably more nervous player. Tsitsipas went up mini-breaks three times in the first six points, on two of those occasions thanks to unforced errors from Nadal, and although each time he was unable to capitalize on those advantages, at 4-4 Nadal handed him a fifth mini-break thanks to an unforced error. Up 5-4, Tsitsipas built a tremendous sequence of attacking forehands before smartly stopping the point to challenge when Nadal’s desperate defensive lob was not called out. Hawkeye proved Tsitsipas to be correct and the Greek earned two set points, the first of which he immediately converted to lead 7-6|(4).
Nadal earned his first break points of the match at 2-2 in the second set and although Tsitsipas held from 15-40, it established a pattern which would prevail for much of the next two sets, in which Tsitsipas’s serve was frequently under pressure while the Greek struggled to threaten Nadal’s serve to the same extent. Tsitsipas held from 0-30 to lead 4-3, saving break point along the way as well as outlasting Nadal in a 17-shot rally, but two games later he found himself beleaguered again and this time was unable to dig himself out of trouble. Nadal, who was increasingly finding greater consistency on his forehand, outlasted Tsitsipas in a long rally for a fourth break point of the set and converted as Tsitsipas put a short forehand wide.
At one set all, it seemed reasonable to wonder whether Tsitsipas would take his foot off the gas in the third set – the loss of which would guarantee that he would face Thiem, not Federer (who like Nadal has shaken off a poor start to build some formidable form) in Saturday’s semifinals. But again Tsitsipas disdained such calculations. Although Tsitsipas looked passive and error-strewn in the early stages of the decider and once again found himself under pressure in each of his first three service games, when he was down 15-40 at 2-2 the Greek suddenly rediscovered his attacking approach and fearless aggressive tennis and reeled off four sensational points to hold for 3-2.
From that point on there was little quarter given by either player as the match wore on into its third hour. Tsitsipas saved break point at 3-3 with a big, risky serve, while at 2-3 and 3-4 Nadal rescued himself from dangerous situations on serve with spectacular net play, including some tremendous lunging reflex volleys. When Tsitsipas produced his first love hold since early in the second set to lead 5-4, it looked as if the tide might have turned in his direction but Nadal was equal to the challenge, holding for 5-5 and then finally breaking Tsitsipas in the next game after some sizzling forehand winners down the line produced on the full run wore down the Greek’s resistance and led to a fatal volley error.
Despite one last flare of resistance from Tsitsipas as Nadal served for the match, the Spaniard closed out the victory to improve to 5-1 against his opponent and win multiple round-robin matches at the ATP Finals for the first time since 2015 when he went 3-0 in the group stages before losing to Djokovic in the semifinals.
Nadal was presented with the year-end world no. 1 trophy by outgoing ATP chief Chris Kermode immediately after the match, and referenced his struggles to come back from injury over the years to emphasize his pleasure at the achievement. ‘I never thought that at the age of 33-and-a-half I would have this trophy in my hands again,’ he said.
Nadal must now wait to see what happens in the night match between Medvedev and Zverev. If Medvedev wins, Nadal will go top of Group Andre Agassi and set up a semifinal clash with Federer at 2pm GMT on Saturday, with Tsitsipas finishing second in the group and facing Thiem at 8pm GMT. If Zverev wins, Tsitsipas will finish top of the group and face Federer while Zverev plays Thiem.
‘If I play Roger here tomorrow it will be an honour,’ Nadal told the crowd at the O2 Arena. ‘If not, I will do everything I can to see you again next year.’
Nadal keeps semifinal hopes alive with comeback victory over Tsitsipas at the ATP Finals
Rafael Nadal kept his ATP Finals semifinal hopes alive with a comeback victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas. World no. 1 Rafael…
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