Nadal Beats Tsitsipas In A London Winner-Take-All Brawl

WASHINGTON/LONDON, November 19, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Thursday evening’s matchup between reigning champion Stefanos Tsitsipas and World No. 2 Rafael Nadal at the Nitto ATP Finals was a winner-take-all proposition. The winner would move into Saturday’s semifinal round against Daniil Medvedev and the loser’s 2020 season would come to an end.

On a night when the margin for error was very slim, it was Nadal who prevailed 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 to move on.

Coming in, Nadal brought a 5-1 career head-to-he’d record to the highly-anticipated match. He won their most recent meeting, which came in both players’ final group match in London last year. Although Nadal won, it was Tsitsipas along with Alexander Zverev who advanced and Nadal did not. All three had 2-1 records.

An incentive for the 22-year-old Tsitsipas, who regrouped from his opening day loss to Dominic Thiem with an exciting victory over Andrey Rublev, was if he defeated Nadal, he would keep his hopes alive of becoming the second-youngest repeat Nitto ATP Finals champion. Meanwhile, Nadal, 34, was seeking his sixth semifinal berth in 10 Nitto ATP Finals appearances and 16 qualifications. However, a loss by the Spaniard would extend his record for the most Nitto ATP Finals appearances without winning the title.

As it happened, on serve at 4-all in the first set, Nadal broke the Greek star on his third break-point opportunity of the set when Tsitsipas double-faulted at 30-40. Then, he served out the 41-minute opening set with back-to-back aces, his third and fourth, to win 6-4.

In the second set, Nadal remained tremendously focused. It seemed that Tsitsipas didn’t have the answers no matter what he threw at his opponent, especially considering that Nadal had dropped only point on serve in his first three service games and committed just five unforced errors the entire match. To his credit, Nadal wasn’t afraid to mix it up by staying back in his comfort zone at the baseline as well as occasionally coming in to play serve and volley. Nadal’s sixth and seventh aces kept him even with Tsitsipas at 4-all. Then, Tsitsipas held at love to edge ahead 5-4, still on serve. He gained two set points on Nadal at 15-40, but the Spaniard saved one of them with an overhead smash winner. However, Nadal’s first double fault of the match handed Tsitsipas the 44-minute set 6-4. So, they played on.

Nadal broke immediately to open the third set. However, he was unable to consolidate the break. Tsitsipas broke Nadal for the second straight service game and the two competitors were back on serve, off the charts with their shot selection and the angles they were finding with their returns. Immediately, Nadal gained triple-break point and converted it when Tsitsipas hit a wide return off his backhand. With back-to-back-to-back breaks of serve, Nadal edged ahead 2-1. This time, he consolidated the break to push ahead 3-1. Instead of 17,000 fans applauding the excitement of the moment, it was eerily quiet inside The O2 Arena.

After a quick hold by Tsitsipas – his first hold of the set – it was back to work for Nadal. With his head down and his never-say-die attitude on full display, Nadal held safely for 4-2. Then, he gained a couple of break point opportunities at 15-40 with a nice up the line passing shot followed by an unforced error by Tsitsipas on a forehand return. He broke on his second try when Tsitsipas hit an inside-out forehand wide. It put Nadal ahead 5-2 with the match on his racquet, serving for a berth in the semifinals as the match neared the two-hour mark.

Nadal’s eighth ace gave him a match point, but Tsitsipas wasn’t done. He gained deuce after Nadal hit a backhand return wide to end a nine-shot rally. However, Nadal gained his second match point when Tsitsipas tried to pin Nadal in the corner with a cross-court forehand  that was hit wide. He won it with a backhand up the line winner that finished the 39-minute set 6-2 and concluded the match at two hours and four minutes.

While both players finished with eight aces, Nadal outpointed Tsitsipas 84-67 to move into the semifinals. He improved his 2020 win-loss record to 27-6 – including 10 victories in his last dozen matches – while Tsitsipas finished at 27-14.

“[To] be in the semifinals here, in the last tournament of the year, is an important thing,” Nadal said during his post-match TV interview. “[I am] happy for that and I am looking forward to the semifinals against Daniil [Medvedev].

“Last year, I was a little bit unlucky not to be in the semifinals. The year before I had to pull out. It is always difficult to play here against the best players in the world every single day [at the] end of the season. Most of the time, you get here a little bit tired, but this year is a little bit different. … I am just excited to be in the semifinals and I hope to be ready to try my best.”

After the loss, Tsitsipas said during his virtual press conference that he was “quite disappointed wit the third one [set].

”It didn’t go as planned. I was rushing. … I don’t even know what I was trying to do, to be honest. I was was too aggressive. … I wasn’t fully present, I wasn’t playing in the moment. … That’s life.”

Rublev denies Thiem 300th victory celebration

World No. 3 Dominic Thiem (2-0) came into his final Group London 2020 match against Andrey Rublev (0-2) already having clinch the group with wins over Stefanos Tsitsipas and Rafael Nadal. For the second straight year, Thiem entered his final group match undefeated. Still, there was plenty for Thiem to play for. After all, the 27-year-old Austrian could earn 200 additional points in the FedEx ATP rankings and another $153,000 in prize money that would come with a victory over Rublev. Plus, a win would be Thiem’s 300th career victory.

However, only 13 minutes into their match, Rublev marched to a double-break 4-0 lead before Thiem finally held his serve – and, ultimately, there was no stopping the 23-year-old Russian star, who was already eliminated from advancing.

Rublev, who came into the week full of momentum from winning three ATP 500 series titles since the August relaunch of the ATP Tour – and five titles overall in 2020 – won 6-2, 7-5 in one hour and 14 minutes. He finished his season 41-10.

With nothing to lose in his final match of the season, Rublev came out playing freely. He showed an attacking style against a listless, flat-looking Thiem, who was lacking his usual sharpness. Rublev won the 26-minute first set easily, going 11 for 11 on his first-serve points won. He did not face any break points and outpointed Thiem 27-15.

Next, Rublev gained his third break of Thiem to go ahead 2-1 to begin the second set as he continued to dominate play on both sides of the net. How dominant was Rublev? He lost just 13 points on his serve through the entire match. Although he was finally broken in the eighth game of the set, Rublev broke back to go ahead 6-5 with the match on his racquet. He promptly closed it out with his 11th ace.

“I started really well, since the first point [and] since the first return,” Rublev said during an on-court TV interview after his win. “Dominic didn’t start that well and I took advantage [from] the beginning. That helped me to have more confidence and helped me to play better and better. … I wish Dominic the best of luck in the semifinals. He deserves to be where he is and he deserves to win the title.”

Rublev won 80 percent (28 of 35) of his first-serve points and finished with 26 winners against just nine unforced errors. Meanwhile, Thiem managed 16 winners and committed 15 unforced errors. Fifty of the 69 points won by Rublev were under five shots.

“I feel happy to be here; I was so close in my second match,” Rublev said. “I had match point and I was serving, so it could have been a completely different story if I won two matches. I would maybe still have a chance to be in the semifinals. … It is a part of life. [I] just need to keep working and we will see what is going to happen next.”

Moscow-native Rublev heads home with some momentum to build upon for 2021, while Thiem will be back on court Saturday where he will face either Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev in the semifinal round.

Afterward, the World No. 3 Thiem said: “The fact that I was already qualified, in the back of my mind, it was difficult today to keep that intensity alive. If I’m not 110 percent at this tournament, [I have] no chance against any of these players. It doesn’t matter who I face. I’m going to play the winner of Sascha against Novak, and both of them are great; both are former champions of this tournament. The goal for me is to find the great intensity tomorrow in practice.”

Emotional win for Kubot/Melo 

In doubles, No. 5 seeds Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Nikola Mektic from Croatia (2-0) had already clinched Group Mike Bryan going into their final round-robin match against No. 8 seeds and 2017 finalists Lukasz Kubot of Poland and Marcelo Melo from Brazil (0-2). However, Kubot and Melo pulled out a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 10-8 win to avoid going home winless. They won on their second match point opportunity when Kubot hit a low forehand return for a winner.

After the match, both Kubot and Melo, who were 2017 finalists, showed a lot of emotion. Melo confirmed via Instagram it was their last match as a team. Thanks, Kubi! We had many good emotions during our partnership, today was not different. We end our team but we keep friends forever!”

Ram/Salisbury advance to doubles semifinals

Joining Koolhof and Mektic in the semifinals wil be No. 2 seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury from Great Britain, who beat No. 3 seeds Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, both from Germany, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 10-4, in two hours and five minutes – the longest doubles match of the week.

While both Ram/Salisbury and Krawietz/Mies went 1-2 a year ago and did not qualify for the semifinals during their Nitto ATP Finals team debuts in 2019, this time the U.S./British duo were not to be denied. They garnered five match points, ahead 9-4, in the match tiebreak and put it away on their first opportunity.

Although both Koolhof and Mektic and Ram and Salisbury both finished group play at 2-1, Koolhof and Mektic will advance as the first-place team from Group Mike Bryan thanks to having a better sets win-loss record (5-3 to 4-4) and a better games win-loss record (38-22 to 31-37).

Looking ahead to Friday

Group Tokyo 2020 completes its round-robin singles play beginning in the afternoon with No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic (1-1) in must-win match against No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev. Winner advances to the semifinals. Then, in the evening, No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev against No. 8 seed Diego Schwartzman. Medvedev has already advanced to Saturday’s semifinal round while Schwartzman has been eliminated.

In doubles, Group Bob Bryan features No. 1 seeds Mate Pavic and Bruno Soares against No. 6 seeds John Peers and Michael Venus in the afternoon, followed in the evening by No. 4 seeds Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos taking on No. 7 seeds Jurgen Melzer and Edouard Roger-Vasselin. The two teams to advance to the semifinals will be determined by the outcome of these matches.

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