Rafael Nadal storms to 60th win to put Andy Murray’s London hopes on hold
Rafael Nadal races to a 6-4 6-1 victory over Andy Murray at the ATP World Tour Finals in London
The statistics suggested that Andy Murray might have a tough time against Rafael Nadal in what was set to become the battle for the top spot in their pool at the ATP World Tour Finals.
They had played 21 times before, and in 15 of those matches, Nadal had come out the winner. However there was a but: In four matches scattered through a full four years, they had shared the honours.
As Murray said after the draw threw the two into the same group, there have not been many chances to assess their rivalry in recent years—due in part to Murray’s extended absence for back surgery in 2013 and in part to Nadal’s injury problems during the latter of stages of 2012 and 2014—so this could turn out to be the most hotly contested match of the round-robins.
It was already clear that Roger Federer, with two straight-sets victories, was likely to top the other pool, and certain that Novak Djokovic could not top that group in any scenario. Murray and Nadal, both with straightforward, straight-sets wins in their first matches, could also confirm a semi-final place, the Briton for a fourth time, the Spaniard for a fifth, with a dominant victory over the other.
But both Murray and Nadal had other fish to fry. One more win for the Briton would confirm him as year-end No2 for the first time—a big deal with the Australian Open seedings up for grabs in the New Year. It would also round him up to 70 match-wins for the year.
Over and above that, both men were seeking to plug one hole in their packed CVs. Both have multiple Masters titles, Grand Slams—Nadal, of course, a full set—and Olympic gold. But neither has won the crowning tournament of the ATP tour.
Murray, perhaps, as one of the form players of the year, and with a career-first win on clay over Nadal at the Spaniard’s home Masters in Madrid, was the favourite this time, despite his negative record. And of course Nadal suffered a slow start to the year after injury and appendicitis blighted the last six months of 2014.
But as the year drew to its end, the form, focus and confidence of Nadal were returning: finals in Basel and Beijing and semis in Shanghai. But ranged against that was a semi finish in Shanghai and a final run in Paris for Murray, plus two Masters titles and final finishes at the Australia Open and the two more Masters.
It promised much. And with just three games on the board, it was already living up to that promise: a break each way via long, demanding rallies from the baseline that drew key errors from each man on the forehand.
The first hold was Nadal’s, but both then held through long, metronomic rallies from the baseline, punctuated by some superb drop shots.
First Murray tried to break down the Nadal backhand cross-court from his forehand, but failed. Then Nadal went on the attack with his forehand, back close to its devastating best for the first time in many a month. He sliced his backhand, changed direction like lightning, and worked three break points in the sixth game with two more destructive drop shots.
Murray came up with some fine serving, and held off the attack with a drop-volley combo of his own. And it was the same story in the eighth game, more break points saved, 4-4. They stood all square at 27 points apiece and with a gruelling 45 minutes on the clock. Now, though, Nadal made his move: a strong hold and then a biting return-of-serve to take a lead on Murray’s serve. It would be another drop shot that sealed the break and the set, 6-4.
The second set began just as the first ended: a hold from Nadal followed by a dire service game from Murray, a break to love with two double faults and a backhand a distance wide.
Conversely, Nadal went from strength to strength, visibly growing more confident and pulling off his signature forehand winner down the line twice in a game to hold for 3-0.
Murray now seemed to be on the defensive all the time, and even a desperate lob was smashed away for a 10th point out of 10 won at the net by Nadal. Another break, courtesy of two more errors from Murray, and Nadal served out the match, 6-1.
He’s clearly playing better tennis now than a few months ago
What had begun as the closest of contests ended not with a bang but a whimper for the Briton: 29 errors, just 43 per cent of first serves, and not another break point after that first game.
He soon faced the media, and highlighted two key elements: He had served poorly, and Nadal had played perhaps better than all year.
“He’s clearly playing better tennis now than a few months ago,” he said. “Also I didn’t help myself out there today. I served extremely low percentage, maybe lowest percentage I served the whole year in any match. It was like the low 40s, and in the second set like 35. That’s not good enough against someone as good as Rafa.
“He’s won way more matches the last few months. He’s come back from tight situations, which is a sign he is getting back to where he wants to be. I’m sure, even now, but beginning of next year, he’ll be playing at a very, very high level again.”
Nadal, as is his way, did not intend to get carried away with his highest-ranked scalp all year.
“Well, is an important victory obviously because that put me in a good position to try to be in the semi-finals, and at the same time I have a big day against a great player in a tough surface.
“I’m just happy the way that I play today, happy the way I working. Just another step for me be able to play at that level against such a great player is good news. Happy for that. Just want to try to keep working the same way to keep confirming that I am in the right direction.”
So Murray must wait for the 70th win that will seal the year-end No2. He must also await the result of the second match of the day between David Ferrer and Stan Wawrinka, to determine what he needs to do to reach the semis himself.
As for Nadal, his 60th win of the year takes him to within striking distance of the semi-finals. He too had to await the result of the evening match, but was sure to advance with a Wawrinka victory or a Ferrer win in three sets.