In the seventh game of the deciding set against Daniil Medvedev, Rafael Nadal used the serve and the volley three times, losing the point each time because the volley was not short enough, giving Medvedev the break at 3-3 . But think about it: when was the last time we saw Nadal serve and take three ends in one game, or even a set?
The Spaniard’s first semi-final in five years at the ATP final ended in defeat, failing to serve for the game in a 6-3, 6-7 (4 ), 3-6 against the Russian in song in London on Saturday evening. That meant there was still a big void in his vast trophy cabinet – the end-of-season indoor hard court title contested by the top eight men.
Nadal has 86 career singles titles, zero in the ATP finals. Zero despite qualifying for the prestigious event for 16 seasons; only Roger Federer (18) has made the cut more times, and he has six titles to show. Of the previous nine appearances (injury-prone Nadal has withdrawn from the event six times), the Spaniard has had four group stage outings.
It’s a title Nadal dreamed of, even if he won literally everywhere else. It’s a title for which Nadal, even at 34, has shown his willingness to make tactical changes to his proven, tested and efficient game that has rewarded him with record feats on all surfaces. “This event is an important event and I will continue to fight for it,” he said ahead of the tournament.
This year Nadal has not only tried to stay afloat and fight, but has found ways to dictate the game on an indoor court where he has a grand total of a title (2005 Madrid). Over the course of his four games, Nadal has showcased various tricks, making subtle changes to his rarely seen clay maestro playstyle.
In his first round robin match against fit Andrey Rublev, Nadal constantly positioned himself inside the baseline to return the Russian’s second serve. The sight of Nadal nearly touching billboards to receive a serve on the red earth is common, but not against Rublev on the low rebound London hard court. The result? Nadal won 13 of 22 points returning the second serve, the standout statistic in his 6-3, 6-4 beating of Rublev.
Against Dominic Thiem, one of the few players who can match Nadal in terms of quality and quantity from the start, the Spaniard took it upon himself to shorten the points. He rushed towards the net 20 times, scoring 14 times. Nadal collected two set points in the first set and was ultimately beaten in two close tiebreakers; but not before forcing the US Open champion to play “at a somewhat higher level than the US Open,” as Thiem analyzed. “I think my chances are better to have a really good result now,” Nadal said of his tournament prospects after this game.
In the knockout match with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nadal knew which area of his game had to be sharpest against a player who doesn’t have the best of the best returns, first serve. The southpaw staged a serving masterclass – 65% healthy first serves and 80% even more impressive first serve points – to storm his first semi-final in London since 2015.
There he met an opponent who was coming out of an indoor title in Paris and who hadn’t lost a set in the group stage, including against lead Novak Djokovic. Against Medvedev, Nadal often deployed the serve and volley, and frequently cut the ball with his backhand so as not to give the Russian any rhythm to fire his ammunition. Leading 6-3, 5-4, he appeared to be working with Nadal on track for his first final place since 2013. But an unusually sharp drop in level while serving for the match saw him shattered. Shot in the received arm, heavy hitter Medvedev pocketed the second set tiebreaker and dominated the out of gas Spaniard in the decider.
“I played a bad game. That’s it. But I had a great opportunity. I lost a great opportunity, ”Nadal said.
An opportunity while feeling physically fresh due to the shortened pandemic season; an opportunity while playing out of his comfort zone that showed he can compete for that missing crown again.
“I don’t want to pretend to be arrogant at all, because I’m not. But I really don’t need to show myself or anyone that if I play my best tennis I think I can win on all surfaces and against any player, ”said Nadal.