Champions love to beat champions. And Rafael Nadal, who has seen it all at 34, could not disguise his joy after beating the ebullient young incumbent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, on Thursday night to move to within two wins of lifting only the second indoor hardcourt title of his career.
Although nobody since the event’s 1970 inauguration can match his run of 16 qualifications in a row at the various iterations of the ATP Tour Finals, the man without peer on clay has made six semi-finals and two finals in 10 attempts without getting his hands on the season-ending prize. Roger Federer has won six times, and Novak Djokovic five.
In compiling 86 career titles, 20 of them majors, 13 at Roland Garros, Nadal has not added to the single indoor hardcourt championship he won during his second year on the tour, when he beat Ivan Ljubicic over five sets in Madrid. It is an odd gap in the Mallorcan’s glistening CV.
“It was a very positive match for me and I’m looking forward to the semi-finals [for the first time in five years],” he said. “Last year I was a little bit unlucky [after winning two matches]. The year before I had to pull out. It is always difficult to play here every single day against the best players in the world at the end of the season, a little bit tired.”
Nadal controlled traffic comfortably as Tsitsipas struggled to contain his pace and placement in the first set. The second set followed a similar pattern, although Tsitsipas battled in every rally and could barely believe it when his hitherto laser-focused opponent double-faulted to gift him parity.
Three breaks in a row at the start of the third set – in Nadal’s favour – left the result in limbo until he secured a tough hold for 3-1 with a rocket of a serve to Tsitsipas’s cramped backhand. From there to the end, his experience kicked in as he kept the 22-year-old Greek moving to his rhythm.
Tsitsipas butchered a forehand to surrender his serve again in the seventh game and pushed Nadal through deuce at 2-5 but he could do nothing about Nadal’s concluding backhand down the line.
Nadal plays the week’s livewire entertainer, Daniil Medvedev, in the semi-finals on Saturday while either Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev, who meet in the closing match of the other round robin group on Friday, will have to get past last year’s finalist, Dominic Thiem, who, dramatically, had his aura punctured on Thursday afternoon.
Thiem admitted after his listless 6-2, 7-5 loss to tournament debutant Andrey Rublev in an hour and a quarter that he has “no chance” against either Zverev or Djokovic on Saturday if he cannot rediscover the energy of two earlier wins that had already propelled him into the semi-finals.
“The fact that I was already qualified, in the back of my mind, it was difficult today to keep that intensity alive,” the world No 3 and US Open champion said. “If I’m not 110% 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.”
There was a price to pay in this match, though: 250 ranking points, $135,000 prize money and his 300th victory. Thiem’s journey since his first career win – against his compatriot and former world No 1 Thomas Muster nine years ago in Vienna – has been largely gilded. But his dip on Thursday, even allowing for the circumstances, was a significant blip. And Rublev’s rise was not; he has had an excellent season and could be a fixture at this level for many years.
As the Russian said later, it was not a futile exercise. “It’s a really important match because it gives me 200 points, which is a lot. It’s more than if you do a final at an ATP 250.”