Nadal steps tantalisingly close to elusive ATP Finals triumph

 - Alex Sharp

The Roland-Garros champion will meet the Rolex Paris Masters winner Daniil Medvedev in the semi-finals on Saturday.

Rafael Nadal about to hit a forehand during his match against Stefanos Tsitsipas during the ATP Finals 2020©Ella Ling/ATP Tour

There were no surprises on court on Thursday night.

20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal gave it his all with an abundance of intensity, determination and versatility.

The Spaniard nullified the threat of defending ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas to advance to his first semi-final at the season finale since 2015. Next up, world No.4 Daniil Medvedev.

Another 'bite' celebration?

Two matches away at the O2 Arena and Nadal could be conducting his trademark ‘bite’ celebration on the trophy, a rare title to escape his grasp.

So far, the world No.2 has dispatched the 2020 sensation Andrey Rublev in straight sets, before a narrow and compelling 7-6(7), 7-6(4) loss to US Open winner Dominic Thiem, ahead of the 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 scoreline facing Tsitsipas.

Edging closer to the title, having qualified a record 16 consecutive seasons from 2005-20, the talk has intensified over a possible maiden triumph. But Nadal insists he has nothing to prove in London.

“I think even if I never won here, I don't want to pretend to be arrogant at all, no? Because I am not. But I really don't need to show even to myself or to no one that if I am playing my best tennis I think I can win in every surface and against any player, no?” Said a defiant Nadal, finalist in this event in 2010 and 2013.

“Is true I never won in the World Tour Finals, but sometimes you play well and you don't win, no? That's normal in this sport, because the other players are very good too. I am playing well, more confident than a few days ago. Yeah, happy to be in the semi-finals, of course, and excited.”

Rafael Nadal and himself at the ATP Finals 2020©Ella Ling/ATP Tour

'Ruthless Rafa'

Tsitsipas, a recent Roland-Garros semi-finalist, was eager to attack the Nadal backhand wing, seeking an early strike and serving with force. The proactive game plan was working until a loose game at 4-4 gifted the Spaniard the chance to serve out the opener. Rafa was in rhythm.

The 13-time Roland-Garros champion was dictating with his forehand, punishing any short ball onto the cusp of victory. However, under pressure from the Greek’s elevated level, it was Nadal’s turn to play a loose service game at 4-5. The 2019 champion forced a decider with four straight breaks punctuating turbulent but high-octane exchanges.

Nadal, pursuing a 71st consecutive victory after taking the first set, rediscovered ‘ruthless Rafa’ to saunter through the third set and into the last four.

The 34-year-old may be downplaying his desire to win in London, but his reaction at match point said it all with a skip into the air and an almighty fist pump towards his team. Nadal knows this is now a huge chance to pick up this elusive title.

It’s these battles and occasions he still relishes, even with 86 titles in the locker.

Rafael Nadal celebrating during his match against Stefanos Tsitsipas during the ATP Finals 2020
©Ella Ling/ATP Tour

"A match that had a little bit of everything"

“I played I think with the right intensity, right determination, changing a little bit the rhythm of the game, going to the net, using the slice too, playing offensive for a while, sometimes defending,” analysed Nadal.

“I think have been a match that had a little bit of everything, no? So was a good variety of tennis, I think, for both of us. I was able to find a way to win. Very happy.

"In general terms it was a positive match for me, an important match for me. Last year I was not able to be in that semi-finals, winning two matches too. This year I am.”

Novak Djokovic’s conqueror Medvedev stands in his path on Saturday in the last four, in a repeat of the 2019 US Open final.

Nadal dominates a 3-0 head-to-head with the rejuvenated Russian, who recently clinched the Rolex Paris Masters.

Daniil Medvedev celebrating during his round-robin match against Novak Djokovic at the ATP Finals 2020©Ella Ling/ATP Tour

Magnitude of the task ahead

Their last encounter was a year ago at the ATP Finals, Medvedev held a 5-1 lead in the third set, but surrendered a match point in a draining defeat.

“I think last year he was very tired mentally at the end of the season. I think this year is a different story. He has plenty of confidence and playing very, very high level. But we are in the semi-finals of the World Tour Finals so we can't expect another story, no?

Medvedev replicated his brilliance from Bercy to completely outmanoeuvre world No.1 Djokovic 6-3, 6-3 on Wednesday and Nadal is aware of the magnitude of the task ahead.

“I am looking forward to play against probably the player who is playing better the last couple of weeks, and I'm excited about that. Let's see. Going to be amazing challenge and I hope to be ready for it.

“I know I need to play at my 100% if I want to have chances, and if not, is almost impossible.”