Since the young Russian’s run to break the top 10 in July, he had faced Nadal twice. The first was in the final of the Montreal Masters and the next was in the US Open final.
Medvedev lost both matches, but he had nevertheless thrown down the gauntlet to everyone on the tour. Those two finals would become part of a remarkable run of six finals, and he would win back-to-back Masters in Cincinnati and Shanghai, to qualify fourth for his first season finale.
He arrived in London hotly tipped to be the one from the four ‘new generation’ qualifiers to make it all the way to the final, even perhaps win the title. He had won more matches than any other player, had accumulated four titles from nine finals, and was 8-7 against top 10 opposition, including two win over Novak Djokovic.
And while he had not got the better of Nadal in New York, he came desperately close in a four hour, 51 minute comeback from two sets down.
Now they would meet in another intense cauldron, with a place in the semi-finals at stake at the O2. For both players has lost their opening matches—Nadal, in a rusty performance, to Alexander Zverev, and Medvedev for the first time to Stefanos Tsitsipas. A second loss would not automatically mean taking the boat back up the Thames for the last time, but close to it.
For Nadal, too, there was the still-open question of the year-end No1. The Spaniard needed the points from round-robin play to keep the pressure on Djokovic—who would have to reach the final to maintain his charge after losing the top spot just a week before the London finale.
Nadal was certainly not happy with his opening performance, though he had played little since the US Open—halted by injury at both the Laver Cup and Shanghai Masters:
“Just Sascha, well played, and me, bad played, honestly. We can find reasons or excuses, but at the end of the day, what really matters is I need to play much better in two days.”
He certainly did play better, and in the early stages, there were some fine, long rallies, net skimming from the baseline, both defending well. Not until the seventh game was there a break chance, but Nadal snuffed it out. They headed to a tie-break via some fine serving well. Indeed Medvedev made it 6-6 with his third straight love hold.
They exchanged the first two points but it was not until mid-game that Medvedev took the lead with a blistering forehand, 5-3, and Nadal wavered, netted, and conceded the set, 7-6(3), in under an hour. It had, overall, been a quality set, though, with both men making more winners than errors by some margin.
The Spaniard then took a long comfort break, and that after a minute or so at the chair. Perhaps that was behind the cold start from Medvedev in the second set. Nadal broke immediately, and as he had in the first set, took advantage of the Russian’s reluctance to come to the net—just three times thus far.
And while Medvedev continued to make more winners than Nadal, the Spaniard made so few errors that it was impossible to get that break back—just three of them in this set. Indeed Nadal broke again for the set, 6-3.
But Medvedev, after taking a comfort break of his own, broke in the opening game of the third, teasing Nadal at the net for the error, but then faced a heavy challenge and staved off break point to hold for 2-0.
The Russian was not done, now venturing to the net to make a couple of winners there. Nadal brought him in again with a drop shot only to see Medvedev pass for a second break, 3-0. A bold hold with a big ace—and he was now up to 16 of them—and a smash made it 4-0, and Medvedev almost got another break.
Nadal resisted two break points to get on the board, but serving at 1-5, he faced match point—yet still dug in to hold.
And gradually, Medvedev unravelled, made more errors, was broken not once by twice for 5-5. By the time Nadal held again, he had made 19 from 23 points, and the errors flowed from Medvedev. Now he had to serve to save the match, and went 0-30 down. The arena vibrated with support for the Spaniard, but suddenly a string of big serves saved the Russian’s day. It was a final tie-break, with both at 101 points.
Not until the 10th point of the game was there clear water, with Medvedev putting an easy volley wide, 6-4. The Russian then pulled a backhand wide and Nadal raised his arms in victory after two and three-quarter hours, 7-6(4).
It had been extraordinary from Nadal, from 1-5 and break point down, and it kept both his campaigns alive. He could still make the knock-out stage here if he beats Stefanos Tsitsipas, and he also moved closer to retaining the No1 ranking. Djokovic must now win the title to overtake him.
But what it showed, too, was the kind of fight and determination that few players can match. Yet he was still self-deprecating in his acknowledgement of the win:
“I’ve been super lucky. Sorry for Daniil, it was a tough loss. He was playing much better than me in the third, of course. Today is just one of those days that is one out of 1000.
“I know from personal experience how tough it is to close out matches. Especially when you have two breaks in front. [When I broke for 3-5], I just thought then I had half a chance. I think I played a bit better at the end… [and] in general I am playing much better today than two days, so that is a very positive thing for me.”
And it is why the O2 arena was rocking in support for a remarkable player.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge