It came down to a single showdown between one of the sport’s most renowned rivalries, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The winner advanced to the semi-finals, the loser caught the plane home.
But by the time Federer had confirmed his place with Dominic Thiem among the last four, there was still no clear picture of who each of those men would play come Saturday. Would the confirmed year-end No1 Rafael Nadal recover from his opening-match loss to seal his place at the top of the Andre Agassi group—and a semi-final showdown against Federer?
The Spaniard had stormed back in extraordinary style against Daniil Medvedev from 5-1 and match-point down to win his second match, and now had to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas—who had already qualified—to go top of the group. And only then would he do so if Medvedev beat Alexander Zverev.
Indeed the defending champion Zverev had his destiny on his own racket: A win against Medvedev and he would be through—though there was a small window of opportunity even if he lost to Medvedev in three sets, as long as Tsitsipas beat Nadal.
The permutations, then, were many and complicated. Could the first match of the day simplify matters? Could Nadal apply the thumbscrews with victory over the charismatic Greek?
In the Spaniard’s advantage was a 4-1 head-to-head. To his disadvantage, Tsitsipas had clearly risen to the O2 occasion: He had not only won both his matches thus far, he had yet to drop a set.
The 21-year-old Greek had certainly captured the imagination of new fans in London with his swashbuckling looks and playing style—attacking tennis, a single-handed backhand, and fearless tactics. He has, though, absorbed information like a sponge in a surging season that has earned wins over Djokovic, Federer and Nadal.
In typically confident style, Tsitsipas admitted:
“I am aware that [Nadal’s] a difficult opponent to face. I’m sure this match is going to mean a lot to him… So I’m going to give it my all. I’m going to try to give my soul, and I think it’s also a very good challenge for me in order to prepare for more difficult matches in the semi-finals and the finals, potentially, so this match is going to give me a lot. It’s going to educate me, and I’m going to try to absorb as much as I can from that.”
But would the knowledge that he was already through to the semis dull the sharpness of his game in this match? It appeared not.
There was nothing between the two men at the start of the first set, nor as it headed to a tie-break. The Tsitsipas serve took a while to warm up, and he faced deuce a couple of times as he languished at 42 percent early on, but by the time they reached the tie-break, with not a break point between them thus far, he was serving to love.
There was no more than a point here and there between them in that tight 13th game, either, but from 4-4, the Greek edged a point against serve, and bravely stopped play when a Nadal ball landed close to the baseline. Tsitsipas was right, the ball was just out, and he aced out the set, 7-6(4), in a fraction under the hour.
A long comfort break by Nadal heralded a make-or-break set for the Spaniard, and he must have been acutely aware that there was precious little between them thus far, that he was certainly in the fight.
And he showed that in the second set, where the balance of power switched as Nadal worked the first break points of the match. Tsitsipas saved them, but then faced trouble again in the seventh game, another break point but an ace to hold. But he was holding back the tide, and this time Nadal did break. Sure enough, he served it out, 6-4.
Nadal had dropped only five points on serve, made only six errors, and he was on a roll. Tsitsipas, for his part, looked a little weary, was not attacking the net with his usual fervour, and of course did not have the same incentive for victory: He was through and perhaps wanted to keep something in the tank.
Tsitsipas was quickly on the defensive again, 15-40 down in the fifth game, but he battled back to hold. He saved another in the seventh game—now up to 6/7 break points saved. It was a sterling effort, but he could not stem the aggressive, fist-pumping energy and infamous forehand of Nadal.
A running pass clipped the line, another angled forehand drew the volley error from Tsitsipas, and once again, Nadal had fought the odds and fought back to a victory, after almost three hours, and in thrilling style with more net points and winners than his opponent.
Even so, his place in the semi-finals was still on hold. First Zverev had to beat Medvedev… everything was on hold, but Nadal was eager for the chance. To chanting crowds, and with the No1 trophy in his hands, he told fans:
“I don’t know if I see you tomorrow because it depends on this evening’s match, but I did all that I could today. If I am able to play in front of you tomorrow against Roger, it will be a huge honour. If not, I really hope to see you next year.”
· Defending champion Alexander Zverev beat Daniil Medvedev, 6-4, 7-6(4), in the final round-robin match, which put Nadal out of the tournament.
· Zverev will face Dominic Thiem in the evening singles match on Saturday, with a 2-5 deficit, including their last match at the 2018 French Open.
· Roger Federer will face Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat the Swiss at this year’s Australian Open, though Federer went on to beat the Greek in Dubai and Basel.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge