Brilliant From The Brit, Mubadala Semifinal Showdown Won By Murray Over Nadal

Andy Murray-Rafael Nadal semifinal (photo: Mubadala WTC)

ABU DHABI/WASHINGTON, December 17, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

When Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal met for the first time since 2016 in Friday evening’s featured semifinal match of the 13th edition of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, the three-time major champion from Great Britain showed why he’s still determined to excel on the tennis court after many had previously written him off.

Murray’s 6-3, 7-5 victory over Nadal in an hour and 50 minutes before an appreciative crowd is proof that the desire to win is still there for the Briton.

“These are the sort of matches I want to be playing, that’s one of the reasons why I’m still playing,” the 34-year-old Murray, currently ranked No. 134, said during a Thursday press conference. “It’s obviously nice to play [Rafa] in this event and we’ll go out there and hopefully we put on a good performance and stuff. But yeah, I want to be playing these guys in the biggest competitions again, that’s something that motivates me.”

While Friday’s showdown wasn’t an official match – and the 20-time Grand Slam champion Nadal from Spain has dominated Murray in their ATP Tour career head-to-head, leading 17-7 – it showed the kinds of struggles that both have been through the past few years, as Murray recovers from hip resurfacing surgery and the World No. 6. Nadal is coming back from being off tour for four months due to a foot injury that sidelined him from playing in this year’s final two Grand Slam tournaments at Wimbledon and the US Open.

Nadal, 35, who earlier this week in press said his expectation was to go to Australia next month and be there healthy enough to play in the Australian Open with positive feelings, knows it’s going to be “super difficult” for him. However, he remains a determined figure.

“If things are going well, I’m going to be playing only one tournament before Australia and these two matches here,” Nadal said. “So, the [number] of hours on court at the competitive level before such a tough and demanding tournament like Australia will not be much.

“But the main thing is still always the same, is to be healthy. If I’m healthy, I still have the interior fire to keep going and to fight for my goals.”

There was something nice about seeing Murray and Nadal renew their longstanding rivalry in Abu Dhabi, where they’ve combined to win the event seven times. The crowd that filled the International Tennis Centre at Zayed Sports City seemed thrilled by the commendable quality of play on display from both former World No. 1 players.

On serve at 3-2 in the opening set, the more in-form Murray converted his first break point opportunity against the clad-in-black Nadal to surge ahead 4-2. Utilizing an aggressive forehand throughout, Murray consolidated the break for a 5-2 advantage. Then, serving for the set at 5-3, he won with a love hold to close out the 36-minute opener.

Next, Murray pressured Nadal in the Spaniard’s opening service game of the second set. In a battle that lasted more than eight minutes, Murray gained a couple of break points but Nadal was up to the task and erased the second one with an ace. He found his way to a service hold after Murray netted a backhand return that capped the 14-point, four-deuce game.

At 2-all, in another lengthy service game spread across 10 points, Nadal saved a break point with an inside-out forehand winner that Murray didn’t have an answer for. Then, while Murray gained another break point with a backhand winner, Nadal saved it for deuce and eventually held his serve for 3-2. Later, Murray saved a break point to hold for 4-all, then, gained break points and cashed in at 30-40 after Nadal hit an 11th-shot backhand long. It gave the Briton a 6-5 lead and the match was on his racquet.

Soon, Murray set up double match point with a fourth-shot forehand winner, but Nadal saved the first one. Finally, Murray won the match on the next point after Nadal ended a 16-shot rally with a long backhand return. Game, set and match, Murray. The two shared a cordial handshake and Nadal patted Murray on the chest as they walked off together to great applause.

During their shared post-match interview on court, Nadal said it was special for him to be back on court in Abu Dhabi, where he has won the Mubadala WTC title five times. “It’s a place I’ve enjoy a lot throughout my tennis career,” he said. “It’s been a while since we’ve played against each other. I’m super happy to see Andy playing at this great level after all he’s been through. So, well done.

“For me, this is a comeback. It was not a bad match for me. It’s been a long time without being on the court in a professional match. So, it’s a positive for me.”

For his part, the two-time Mubadala champion Murray acknowledged that it’s great being back on the court and to be able to play at a high level, again. “It’s been a very long time. Me and Rafa have played so many tough matches over the years. Although we’ve not played in five or six years, it shows both of us have gone through a lot of injuries, troubles and issues. It’s great to just have the opportunity to be on the court with him, again.

“When I was younger, I thought I wasn’t appreciating it as much as I do now. So, it’s great to be back on the court – I’m so happy that Rafa is back – and I look forward to the next few years.”

Later, during his press conference, Murray said he appreciated the response he received from the crowd. “It makes a massive difference to play in front of the fans. Fans are what makes sport special, and it makes it easier for the players.

“Events such as this are great for the players,” he added. “It gives us the chance to work on a lot of things and I think players look to play the right way when they come here because it sets you up for a big start of the year.”

While Friday’s Murray-Nadal match was only an exhibition, it provided plenty of entertaining moments for the fans who were there and for those who watched on TV, and, importantly, both seemed relatively healthy. How many more times Murray and Nadal will play against each other? No one knows for sure, but this was one to remember and enjoy.

Rublev goes the distance to beat Shapovalov

Earlier, World No. 5 Andrey Rublev of Russia reached his first Mubadala final with a 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-4 over World No. 14 Denis Shapovalov of Canada that lasted two hours and 20 minutes.

After Shapovalov saved four break points during a 16-point fourth game to hold serve in the opening set, he went on to win his next three service games at love. However, it wasn’t enough to win the set as Rublev recovered and won a first-set tie break 7-5.

Then, Shapovalov jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second set after breaking Rublev in the second game. He increased his lead to 4-1 following a love hold. Serving for the set at 5-3, Shapovalov fought off a trio of break points, the third with his 12th ace. He gained a set point with a forehand winner and won 6-3 with his 13th ace to send the match to a decider.

Next, on serve at 5-4 in the third set, Rublev gained his first break point in the set that also happened to be a match point. It happened after Shapovalov sailed a forehand long after an extended rally. Finally, the Russian won the semifinal after Shapovalov double-faulted on match point.

“It was a great battle, three sets,” Rublev said, relieved that he had secured a berth in Saturday’s title match against Murray. “Even if it’s an exhibition tournament, we played a great level.

“It was a close match. This kind of match is important for the upcoming season. That’s why we’re here and what we’re looking for.”

Shapovalov, who will face Nadal for third place, remained upbeat. “It’s great to play Andrey,” he said. “Honestly, every single time we have matches like this. Losing was disappointing but there was some great tennis over the three sets. I think for the fans it was great.”

Fritz wins fifth-place battle over Evans

In a battle among Top 25 opponents, Taylor Fritz of the United States saved a pair of match points against Great Britain’s Dan Evans during a third-set match tie-break and won their fifth-place match, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 11-9.

A day after losing his opening match against Shapovalov, 6-3, 6-0, Fritz made a nice recovery to finish his Abu Dhabi debut 1-1.

After the 23rd-ranked Fritz won an opening-set tie break, Evans forced a match tie-break after winning the final eight points of the second set to level the match. Then, he pushed ahead of Fritz 4-1 in the decider, winning 9 of 10 points going back to the second set as bad errors piled on for the American No. 1. The No. 25 Evans showed how quickly the match could turn in his favor. Although he continued to take advantage of Fritz’s miscues during the match tie-break, he wasn’t able to finish off his American foe.

Ahead 8-7, Evans set up match point with a volley winner coming into the net but double-faulted away the opportunity. Then, Fritz gutted out a 25-shot rally with a forehand winner down the line to level the match tie-break at 9-all. After Fritz gained a match point of his own, he clicked on his first opportunity and won as Evans netted a forehand return that ended a 17-shot skirmish to close out the one-hour and 34-minute match.

“I had a bit of a rough time out here yesterday, so today I played a lot better,” Fritz said during an on-court interview. “We had a lot of fun points, I thought it was pretty entertaining tennis. I hope the crowd enjoyed it.”

“Quotable …”

“He killed me on the court [Wednesday] so I think he’s feeling pretty good. It’s incredible to be out on the court with him. Every time I’m hitting against him, I’m just like, ‘Damn, this guy’s good.’

“I mean I hit a passing shot and he just hit a drop volley off of it like it was nothing and I’m like, ‘I wish I could do that.’

“You really see how great they are when you practice with them. The guy hits the ball so big, he’s so good, he’s got some of the best hands I’ve seen at the net. For me, it’s inspiring to practice with guys like this, for my sake to see how I can be better, or how I can improve my game so I can hopefully one day be at their level or be somewhat as good as they are.”

Denis Shapovalov after hitting with Rafael Nadal during a practice session at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. The two will play for third place on Saturday.