ATP World Tour Finals: Fighting spirit sees Nadal, Wawrinka through
ATP World Tour Finals 2013: Rafael Nadal and Stanslas Wawrinka both book their places in the semi-finals in London
The round-robin format of the ATP World Tour Finals, featuring as it does the best eight tennis players in the world, is a delight for fans.
It pitches the biggest rivalries into daily conflict: Juan Martin del Potro against Roger Federer for the third time in a fortnight; David Ferrer attempting the near impossible of beating Rafael Nadal for the second time in a week; Novak Djokovic replaying last year’s final against Federer.
It also has high stakes: This week, Nadal and Djokovic contested the year-end No1 and continue to contest the prestigious title. They could even end up taking the contest to Monday’s final.
But the nature of the round robin, and the close rankings between the eight men, ensure outright front-runners are hard to come by.
After two matches, Djokovic knew he had clinched the top spot in Group B and Richard Gasquet knew he was out of contention, but the second semi-finalist would come down to an all-or-nothing face-off between Federer and del Potro—and they had split their last two matches.
Nadal also knew he had clinched a semi place after two matches, but unlike Djokovic, he could end up first or second in his group—and that had consequences. Unless he topped his quartet, he would play Djokovic in the semis rather than the final.
The only way he could guarantee the top spot was by winning his third match, while the name of the fourth man to advance was up in the air.
Stan Wawrinka, if he beat David Ferrer in the afternoon match, kept his hopes alive—and such a victory looked entirely feasible. The Spaniard and the Swiss had met twice this year, each winning a final on clay: Ferrer in Buenos Aires and Wawrinka in Portugal. What’s more, they had also split their two meetings in 2012, both of those on hard courts.
And the boundless energy of Ferrer had looked muted since his arrival in London a day after losing the final of the Paris Masters. Indeed, he was playing in his seventh consecutive tournament in straight weeks, and had reached finals in each of the last three—Stockholm, Valencia and Paris. Little wonder, perhaps, that he lost his first two round-robins in London in straight sets. His tour-leading 84th match of the year would be hugely demanding.
But for Wawrinka, even if he beat Ferrer, his own fate remained in the hands of Nadal and Tomas Berdych. For if the Czech beat the world No1, Wawrinka would be on the plane home.
What motivates Ferrer to deliver such effort, even when his is a lost cause, is a mystery. He certainly began his match looking a step behind the Wawrinka pace, and the Swiss backhand was in such fine form that it almost single-handedly controlled the opening rallies and games. It was a cross-court bullet that broke Ferrer in the sixth game, and Wawrinka cranked up his serve to 140mph to serve out the next to love.
But no-one underestimates Ferrer, and rightly. He bounced and bustled around the court, head down, full of intent and sure enough, he survived deuce, found incredible pace on his return of serve to earn break points, and a Swiss double fault levelled the set.
The next game was the most compelling of the match, see-sawing through seven deuces as each struggled to keep the momentum. There were wrong ‘out’ calls, volley attacks, smashes hit long and more, before Ferrer converted his fifth break point to serve for the set. But that was not enough. Wawrinka broke back to love and they went to a tie-break. Despite the disappointment of losing his momentum, Ferrer dominated, scurrying after drop shots and hitting his finest forehands to race to the set, 7-3.
Ferrer opened with a love hold, too, earned a break point in the second game but the Wawrinka serve compensated for his growing tally of errors—a couple of 134mph aces keeping his grip, and it was Ferrer who succumbed to a break in the third that he never recovered. By a set all, Wawrinka had twice the errors of Ferrer, but this was scintillating tennis of powerful, flat and accurate hitting, mixed up with some neat net finishing, some fine drop-shots and even a couple of lob winners.
For all Ferrer’s efforts—and they are never in doubt—the fatigue began to show, mostly in his serve first which dropped to a 44 percent for the set. He was immediately broken, and Wawrinka’s serving turned hot again, with a 135 ace to hold, then a 137 ace to hold in the next. The Swiss confidence, not surprisingly, rose across the board and he broke twice more, both times, fittingly, with a backhand winner, to take the match, 6-1.
Ferrer admitted afterwards that it was probably a mistake to play seven tournaments in a row: “Is too much: But now I know it’s too much. Before I didn’t know it—three finals in a row, no?”
It had taken 140 minutes and some fine hitting, yet still did not guaranteed him a semi place. He would have to wait another five hours, during which time, Nadal revealed, Wawrinka visited his friend in his locker room to tell him to do his stuff.
Nadal duly obliged, though there was surely a moment when Wawrinka was chewing his nails with worry. Nadal played a strong opening set, breaking the big-serving Berdych in the first game to take a lead that the Czech could not close. The Spaniard was up 6-4, having dropped only two points on his first serve, and firing on all cylinders.
Few expected what came next, especially given Berdych’s record against Nadal—a 15-match losing streak dating back to 2006. The Czech began to play the kind of first-strike tennis that has taken him to wins over Federer, to Wimbledon, Miami and Madrid finals and to the finals of two indoor tournaments this year.
He produced awe-inspiring fire-power, not just on serve—though he cranked up 13 aces in the match—but on his deep and accurate forehand and backhand. Even his occasional net-plays were effective.
He won the first 10 points, broke twice and ended it, 6-1, having dropped only two points on his first serve. He had won 26 points out 37 in the space of around 20 minutes.
But Nadal served first in the decider, and came back aggressively to drop only three points on his first serve. Berdych looked secure enough, though, with nine winners to Nadal’s three as they headed to 4-4. But faced with serving to stay in the match, the Czech double faulted twice and saw a signature Nadal lasso forehand drill past him down the line for the break, the set and the match, 6-4.
This was an impressive mental performance by Nadal in the face of some of Berdych’s strongest tennis. It takes him to his fourth semi-finals of this tournament and to top of the Group. But while he has confirmed Wawrinka’s fourth meeting of the year against Djokovic, Nadal will have to await the Saturday blockbuster between Federer and del Potro to determine his own opponent.