Rublev Overpowers Murray In Mubadala World Tennis Championship Final

Andrey Rublev (photo: Mubadala WTC)

ABU DHABI/WASHINGTON, December 18, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

If this week’s 13th edition of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi is any indication of what lies ahead for former World No. 1 Andy Murray, expect his upcoming 2022 tennis season to be filled with a sense of both purpose and clarity – and an enthusiasm to plow on, win or lose.

On Saturday, the 134th-ranked Murray from Great Britain tried valiantly to carry forth the momentum he gained from his spirited victory over World No. 6 Rafael Nadal the day before. However, his opponent, World No. 5 Andrey Rublev of Russia, proved to be too much for the Briton. Rublev beat Murray, 6-4, 7-6(2), in an engaging one-hour and 36-minute final to win his first Mubadala title.

“It is great being able to play at this level again after a very long time,” Murray said after defeating Nadal on a fast court in Friday’s semifinal round at the International Tennis Centre in Zayed Sports City. “Me and Rafa have played so many matches over the years but both of us have gone through so many injury troubles and issues. It is great to have the opportunity to be on court with him again.”

On the prospect of facing Rublev, Murray said: “It’s another chance to play against a top player. He hits a huge ball from the back of the court so will certainly test my movement out.”

As it turned out, Murray was dead-on in his assessment of the 24-year-old Moscow native, who captured 53 ATP Tour singles matches in 2021 to go along with a winning gold medal in mixed doubles at the Tokyo Olympics and helping lead Russia to this year’s Davis Cup title. Rublev made Murray run a lot. In the end, the two-time Mubadala titlist simply ran out of gas.

In the opening set, Rublev broke Murray on his second chance in the fifth game to pull ahead, then consolidated the break for a 4-2 lead with his brand of non-stop offensive-minded tennis. A love hold increased the lead to 5-3. Soon, Rublev won the 41-minute first set 6-4 with an up-the-line forehand winner that Murray was unable to chase down.

Immediately, Rublev broke Murray in the Briton’s first service game to open the second set and went into cruise control as he consolidated the break for a 2-0 advantage. Next, Murray got on the board with a couple of aces in the third game, but Rublev immediately countered with a hard-hitting love hold and increased his lead to 4-2 with a half-volley winner as he pushed Murray about the court.

However, in the Russian’s next service game, Murray gained a couple of break points and cashed in on the second one with a backhand passing shot winner to get back on serve at 4-all. He consolidated the break and found himself leading for the first time in the match at 5-4. It was short lived as Rublev dug in and held serve, but Murray reciprocated and pushed ahead 6-5. It ensured himself of at least a tie-break to determine the outcome of the second set. Next, an easy hold by Rublev that was sealed with his 10th ace set up the second set tie-break.

During the tie-break, Rublev was ruthless in attacking Murray. He raced to a 4-0 lead, thanks to a pair of mini-breaks sandwiched around a couple of service holds. Then, after Murray hit a forehand winner for his first point, he looked visibly frustrated as he swatted an extra ball back across the net to the ball kid. Later, Murray’s serve was broken, again, and at 6-2, Rublev found himself with a championship point on his racquet. He promptly won the title with an explosive forehand that Murray was unable to successfully return. As he raised his arms in victory, Rublev seemed relieved, while Murray’s demeanor expressed disappointment. Soon, though, his attitude turned for the better.

“It’s my third time here and I always love coming,” Rublev said during the trophy ceremony. “You get quality matches against top players. It’s great to have these types of matches ahead of the new season. That’s why we are here; it’s great preparation.”

Then, Rublev gave props to Murray. “It’s a huge pleasure to share a court with Andy. He is a special player, a true legend, and it was a great match. I think the spectators enjoyed it and that is what we are playing tennis for.”

Rublev was asked if he would return to Abu Dhabi to defend his title. It drew a huge smile from the newly-crowned champion, who quipped: “If you invite me and Andy, we’d love to come back!”

Upbeat, despite the loss, Murray said in accepting the runner up trophy: “I always enjoy coming back. I played three really good matches, but Andrey played really well. He has a very good game. I’ll take the positives. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my week; thanks for having me back.”

Looking back, the three-time major champion Murray scored a pair of solid wins against British No. 2 Dan Evans, currently ranked 25th, and also against his longtime rival Nadal. Looking ahead, Murray will begin the new season with a new coach, Jan de Witt after parting ways with his coach of nearly six years Jamie Delgado, who is now in camp with Denis Shapovalov. He’s also playing with a new tennis racquet that has a bigger head after two decades of using the same model.

“I’m looking forward,” Murray added. “I just need to find a way of turning things my way in matches against the biggest players and having good runs at the biggest tournaments. If you guys would like me to come back, then I would love to come back. It’s a fantastic way to get ready for the new season.”

Shapovalov wins third-place match over Nadal

In a battle of left-handed sluggers featuring five-time Mubadala winner Rafael Nadal and Denis Shapovalov, who was making his Abu Dhabi debut, youth beat experience. Shapovalov rallied from a set down to defeat Nadal, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 10-6, in the third-place match.

Nadal, who was playing his first competitive matches since August after a foot injury prematurely ended his season and forced him to miss Wimbledon, the US Open and the Tokyo Olympics, struggled for consistency against Shapovalov just as he did the day before against Murray. However, by all accounts his foot came through without any complications and he showed the same intensity that has become his trademark.

Shapovalov, who reached 30 wins for the third time in his young career this season, broke Nadal in the very first game of the match and consolidated it with a solid love hold. Then, he earned a break point in Nadal’s second service game before the 35-year-old Spaniard erased it and went on to hold serve with an ace. However, with Shapovalov serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal erased the break advantage in the 10th game, then recovered nicely – and in time – to win the 53-minute set 7-4 in a tie-breaker.

As the second set unfolded, while the 22-year-old Shapovalov at times played like he truly belongs near the top of the game, Nadal showed he was primed for a good challenge, too. In the second game, for instance, he fought through three break points and held serve with an ace that put a cap on a nine-and-a-half minute 16-point game. However, Shapovalov remained persistent and broke Nadal with backhand winner at the conclusion of a 16-shot rally to go ahead 5-3. Then, he gained triple-set point and wrapped up the 52-minute second set with an ace to level the match at a set each.

With a 10-point match tie-break to decide the outcome, Shapovalov gained an early break for a 3-1 lead, then broke Nadal again with a backhand passing shot winner to garner a 6-3 advantage. It was his 25th winner. Soon, Shapovalov pushed ahead 8-5 with another clean forehand winner, which put the match on his racquet.

Next, Shapovalov gained match point after an unforced error by Nadal, but the Spaniard fought back to erase it. However, it would not be enough. With another match point in his pocket, Shapovalov won on his next opportunity, 10-6, by hitting a brilliant backhand winner. The young Canadian celebrated his victory by raising a clenched left fist as he came in to the net to receive congratulations from Nadal. It proved to be a terrific match tie-break for Shapovalov, who showed terrific offensive power throughout the two-hour and two-minute contest.

In a post-match interview on court, Shapovalov said it was a good decision for him to come play Mubadala. “For sure, it was great to come here and assess where my game is at after three or four weeks of pre-seasoning,” he said. “Putting work in, it’s great to see that my game is there. There are a few things I want to work on before Australia, but I’m super happy with the week.”

Shapovalov will head into the 2022 season with a good mindset following a pair of quality victories against Taylor Fritz on Thursday and Nadal on Saturday, plus a good effort against Rublev in the semifinals on Friday, to show for his weekend in Abu Dhabi.

As for Nadal, his plans are to play an ATP tournament in Melbourne early next month before the Australian Open begins Jan. 17. “I know it’s going to be difficult for me,” he said Thursday about his Australian Open chances.

During his press conference Saturday after losing to Shapovalov, Nadal added: “I still believe that I will be competitive enough to give myself chances to compete for the things that I have been competing for the last 15 years; if not, personally it doesn’t make sense.”

In his on-court interview, Nadal was asked what positives he would take away from his tough, back-to back losses against Murray and Shapovalov. He said: “Maybe too tough. Good, the goal is achieved to be back on court and play two good matches. I spent more or less four hours on court during the last two days – three days – because the day before I practiced against Rublev. I enjoyed it and playing in front of you guys is always a pleasure.

“Congrats to Denis today. I wish you all the very best for the next season. I’m going to keep trying to keep going.”

Shapovalov returned the compliment to the 20-time major champion. “Anytime I get to go out on court against a guy like Rafa is an honor for me.” Then, turning to Nadal, he expressed: “It’s great to see you back out on the court healthy. Hopefully, you can have a great season and keep going. First time for me here, it’s been super enjoyable. I played three great matches. I would like to come back for many years.”

“Quotable …”

“It’s special to be back in competition at a place I enjoy a lot. It had been a while since we played against each other. I am happy to see Andy playing at this level after everything he went through. It was not a bad match for me.”

Rafael Nadal, five-time Mubadala World Tennis Championship titlist, after playing Andy Murray in the semifinals on Friday.