ATP Cup 2020: Rafael Nadal survives De Minaur and Sydney to set 55th meeting with Djokovic

No1 Nadal will take on No2 Djokovic for first time since swapping top spot last October

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Marianne Bevis)
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

If ever determination was etched on a face, it was on the visage of 20-year-old Alex de Minaur in a packed Ken Rosewall Arena at Sydney’s Olympic Park.

In the first playing of this new team tournament, home nation Australia had done its country proud during a period of great distress across the nation. Few events can have been played out against the backdrop of such a devastating natural disaster, as bushfires continued to sweep through Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. The smell and taste of the smoke had lingered around this very city: the roof remained closed to the elements.

And Australia’s youngest and highest ranked man had more than played his part in bringing Australia from the round-robin phase in Brisbane to the semis in Sydney. He beat higher-ranked players Alexander Zverev and Denis Shapovalov, but lost one of the matches of the tournament against Dan Evans of GB in the quarters. No problem: He came back to court with Nick Kyrgios to play the doubles match of the tournament, taking the match-tie-break, 18-16.

Now de Minaur had to find all his speed and variety of shot against world No1 Rafael Nadal, a man who had won 32 consecutive matches played for Spain—until the quarter-finals. There, David Goffin exploited the very same skills owned by de Minaur to beat Nadal.

And after the resilient and consistent Spanish No2 Roberto Bautista Agut beat Kyrgios in the first match of this semi-final, 6-1, 6-4, it was essential that de Minaur repeat Goffin’s feat.

He had not won a set against Nadal in their two previous meetings, but here was a young player on the rise, and he had the weight of Australia cheering him on.

What is more, de Minaur and his home city of Sydney had proved to be a winning formula before: He earned his first win in 2017, reached his first final in 2018, and won his first title in 2019 at the ATP’s Sydney tournament. Nowhere in the world did he enjoy more support.

Against Belgium, Nadal had seemed uncomfortable in the humidity of Sydney, struggling to find his energy and his timing after crossing three time zones from Perth to play in these very different conditions. But he came straight back after his Goffin loss to help seal the quarter-final win in doubles. Now he had to do it again just 18 hours later.

And again, the mighty Spaniard looked fractionally below his best in the early goings of his match. Meanwhile, de Minaur’s tennis was a thrilling mix of speed, penetration, change of direction, change of pace, and it punched holes time and again against Nadal. And yes, his face was a picture of determination, his jaw clenched, and his fists clenched after every winning shot.

The Aussie broke in the very first game, and continued to dictate play, stepping in, taking time away from Nadal. He held off the only threat of the set, 0-30 at 4-3, and even threatened to break Nadal again in the ninth game. He would go on to serve out the set, 6-4, with a love hold. Was the Spaniard about to lose two consecutive singles matches for the first time October 2016?

De Minaur continued to hold sway in the second set, too. Love holds became the order of the day, and he made more winners and fewer errors than Nadal. The Spaniard seemed to be at a loss for how to take back control, and his discussions with team-mates and coach became more animated at each change of ends.

But as they headed towards what looked like a tie-break, Nadal’s level edged higher. He made an easy love hold for 5-4, and survived deuce for 6-5. That seemed to inject some adrenalin into his left arm, and he got to 15-30 for only the second time in the match against the de Minaur serve. That became break point—Nadal’s first—and despite making two shanked strikes, he drew the error to break for the set, 7-5.

The impact was double-headed. De Minaur’s shoulders tightened a little, his face looked less confident, and the crowd support was subdued. Meanwhile, Nadal’s face was set with intent, and his strut was back. He knew these were the beginnings of a momentum shift, that his opponent’s level could not stay at the same extraordinary level indefinitely.

Sure enough, he broke to love in the second game, held to love, and broke again for 4-0. It was a bitter blow for de Minaur, as the errors cranked up and his serve began to let him down. He would win just two of 10 first serve points and one of five second serve points in the set.

There was a slight reprieve in the fifth game: a wayward double fault handed back one of the breaks to the Aussie, but it did not mark the start of a comeback. Nadal broke again, and served out the win, 6-1, after two hours 13 minutes.

De Minaur was crest-fallen as he left court to huge support from the crowds. But as so often before, there was no denying Nadal, who would not consider defeat an option, as he led his team to the final.

Nadal gave a rueful smile after the victory as he admitted that he hoped for plenty of sleep before his return for the third straight night of play in Sydney. For he will now face the most formidable task in tennis: world No2 Novak Djokovic, who earlier kept his scorecard clean with his fifth singles win of the tournament—to which he had also added a doubles win along the way.

Djokovic was certainly tested, as expected, by the new world No4 Daniil Medvedev as Serbia took on the youthful Russian team in the earlier semi-finals. But the man who was No1 for a year before conceding the top spot to Nadal last November, is never more dangerous than when playing on the Australian hard courts. Djokovic has won the Australian Open seven times, and is the defending champion, too.

He surged to a lead, 6-1, with two breaks, taking 31 of the set’s 46 points. Medvedev, who with young compatriot Karen Khachanov, had won all their singles matches plus twice teaming up for doubles, hit back, as his previous results against Djokovic promised he would.

The 6ft 6in 23-year-old Russian won four titles last year, and more matches than anyone else. He also beat Djokovic in their last two meetings, both three setters, in Monte Carlo and Cincinnati.

Medvedev, then, won the second set, 7-5, but Djokovic saved all three break points in the third set, and needed just one break of his own to seal the victory for Serbia, 6-4.

Dusan Lajovic, ranked 34 and with two losses to his name against the formidable figure of No17 Karen Khachanov, earlier won his match too, 7-5, 7-6(1), and Viktor Troicki and Nikola Cacic made it a clean sweep in the doubles.

So Nadal’s win set just the final showdown that this new tournament needed, between the two biggest rivals ever seen in men’s tennis. He will face Djokovic for a record 55th time, knowing that he lost to the Serb in three straight sets the last time they met in this part of the world—the final of the Australian Open 12 months ago.

Nadal subsequently edged the win in the Rome final, in three sets, but that still left the Spaniard trailing 28-26 in this rivalry. Indeed Djokovic has been the dominant man almost since Nadal beat him to win the US Open title in 2013: The Serb has notched up 13-4 against the Spaniard since then.

All in all, then, this first ATP tournament of 2020 has served up perhaps the perfect start to a new decade of men’s tennis.

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