Rafael Nadal rises to Fognini challenge and Beijing final in quest for London
Rafael Nadal beats Fabio Fognini in straight sets to reach the China Open final and keep his ATP World Tour Final bid on track
In a year that has seen Rafael Nadal fight to regain the form that drained away after a 2014 hit by injury and illness, the battling Spaniard has edged his way from a low of 10 in the rankings after Wimbledon to within sight of sealing a place among the elite eight at the World Tour Finals.
It has been a year that showed the true colours of the man from Mallorca—knocked down time and again yet getting back up to take on the next challenge with renewed determination.
For the blows to his confidence through 2015 kept coming: the first year in a decade that he failed to win a Grand Slam, the first in a decade that he failed to win a clay Masters title, the first in a decade that he fell outside the top five.
He also suffered losses to players he had previously dominated. Fernando Verdasco scored only his second win in 16 attempts. Tomas Berdych beat him for the first time in nine years. Milos Raonic got his first win in six attempts. Feliciano Lopez scored his second straight win in Cincinnati, and Alexandr Dolgopolov did the same at Queen’s, while the 102-ranked Dustin Brown was a shock Round 2 winner at Wimbledon.
All of which made Nadal’s semi-final contest in Beijing of such particular interest. Until 2015, Fabio Fognini had not beaten Nadal in four meetings. This year, the flamboyant Italian had got the better of the Spaniard three times, not just on clay but in one of the rarest of feats, coming back from two sets down to beat Nadal at the US Open.
In reaching the semi-final in the city where he won Olympic gold in 2008, however, Nadal’s blood, sweat and toil had been on full show, both in beating the big-hitting Vasek Pospisil in the second round and more especially in battling back from a set down against the fast-rising world No30, Jack Sock, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3.
So it was on that fight-back that Nadal was keen to focus: “Obviously I finished the match playing better than what I started. This year I lost a lot of matches when I had an advantage. So to have the chance to win a match when I start losing… is important for me.”
It went without saying that Nadal wanted to reach his first hard-court final since Miami 2014—and also put on more points to strengthen his position in the race to the ATP World Tour Finals. Kei Nishikori remained ahead of him by also reaching the semis in Tokyo, while David Ferrer was chasing him with his own semi run in Beijing—though the evergreen Spaniard now faced the task of trying to halt Novak Djokovic’s unbeaten record in the Chinese capital.
But this match was something more for Nadal, a chance to measure his progress back to his top level against one of his toughest yardsticks this year. And this time he survived a shaky opening set of multiple breaks on both sides to take the important first set, 7-5. The increasingly confident Nadal then got the decisive break to go 4-2 in the second set, and served out the victory, 6-3. And just as he had highlighted after the Sock match, he credited his attacking tactics:
“He’s a great player, a great and talented player. It was a tough first set, as I expected. But I think I played well. I played much closer to the baseline than the previous days. That’s very important for me, very important for my game. The position for me on the court today was more aggressive, and that’s why I was able to beat him today after a couple of defeats.”
Nadal’s weekend was further boosted by a surprise result in Tokyo, where Benoit Paire got the better of Nishikori, 1-6, 6-4, 6-2, to set up a final against Stan Wawrinka. That put Nadal ahead of Nishikori in the Race to London.
Nadal must surely also be encouraged by some timely support from old friend and compatriot, fellow Mallorcan Carlos Moya.
The former French Open finalist, now age 39, is currently involved in the ATP Champions Tour, along with fellow Spaniard Alex Corretja: They are involved in the Legends Cup in Palma this week.
Moya is confident that Nadal can find his way back to top form: “He just needs to win a couple of those tough matches, the ones he would always win in the past. He’s started losing those matches. It’s happened to all the players in the world but it’s a new situation for him.
“He’s healthy, which is the most important thing, but it means the problem is a mental thing. But I’m really sure he’s going to get over it next year. To get to No1 again could be tough because Novak is so strong, but for sure [Rafa] will compete for Grand Slam titles again in 2016.”
Corretja, two-time French Open finalist, added: “It’s been a weird year for Rafa, but I think he is on the way back… If he can win some big matches at the end of this year he will be back on form at the beginning of next season.”
Now a very big match does loom, possibly against Djokovic, who has beaten the Spaniard in both matches so far this year, and in six of their last seven meetings.
For while the words of his compatriots will be music to Nadal’s ears, reaching the Beijing final over Fognini is just the latest step on the tough 2015 road back to his best.
Race to London as at Beijing/Tokyo finals
1 Novak Djokovic, 12,965 [yet to play Beijing SF]
2 Andy Murray, 7,510
3 Roger Federer, 6,740
4 Stan Wawrinka, 5,760
Next in line
5 Tomas Berdych, 4,100
6 Rafael Nadal, 3,970
7 Kei Nishikori, 3,855
8 David Ferrer, 3,435 [yet to play Beijing SF]
9 Richard Gasquet, 2,355
10 John Isner, 2,225
11 Kevin Anderson, 2,205
12 Marin Cilic, 2,100
13 Milos Raonic, 2,080
14 Gilles Simon, 1,965
15 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 1,900
16 David Goffin 1,625
17 Feliciano Lopez 1,590
18 Dominic Thiem 1,510
19 Benoit Paire, 1,453
20 Bernard Tomic 1,450