In the seventh game of the deciding set against Daniil Medvedev, Rafael Nadal resorted to serve and volley thrice, losing the point each time as the volley wasn’t short enough, handing Medvedev the break at 3-3. But think of it: when was the last time one saw Nadal serve and volley thrice in a single game, or even a set?
The Spaniard’s first semi-final in five years at the ATP Finals ended in defeat, failing to serve out for the match in a 6-3, 6-7(4), 3-6 loss to the on-song Russian in London on Saturday night. It meant his vast trophy cabinet still has one big vacuum—the season-ending indoor hard-court title fought by the top eight men.
Nadal has 86 career singles titles, zero at the ATP Finals. Zero despite qualifying for the prestigious event for 16 seasons; only Roger Federer (18) has made the cut more times, and he has six titles to flaunt. Out of the nine previous appearances (an injury-prone Nadal has pulled out of the event six times), the Spaniard has had four group stage exits.
It’s a title Nadal has craved for, despite winning literally everywhere else. It’s a title for which Nadal, even at 34, showed willingness to make tactical changes to his tried, tested and efficient game that has rewarded him with record-setting feats across surfaces. “This event is a big one and I am going to keep fighting for it,” he said before the tournament.
This year, Nadal didn’t just try to stay afloat and fight, but came up with ways to dictate play on an indoor surface where he has a grand total of one title (2005 Madrid). In all his four matches, Nadal unveiled different tricks, making subtle changes to his game style rarely seen from the claycourt maestro.
In his first round robin tie against in-form Andrey Rublev, Nadal consistently positioned himself inside the baseline to return the Russian’s second serves. The sight of Nadal almost touching the advertising boards to receive serve on the red dirt is common, but not against Rublev on the low-bouncing London hard court. The result? Nadal won 13 out of 22 points while returning the second serve, the standout stat in his 6-3, 6-4 thrashing of Rublev.
Against Dominic Thiem, one of the few players who can match Nadal in terms of quality and quantity from the baseline, the Spaniard took the onus of shortening the points. He rushed to the net on 20 occasions, succeeding 14 times. Nadal had two set points in the first set and was eventually beaten in two close tie-breakers; but not before forcing the US Open champion to play at “a little bit higher level than at the US Open”, as Thiem analysed. “I think my chances are bigger to have a very good result now,” Nadal said about his tournament prospects after that game.
In the knockout match with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nadal knew which area of his game needed to be at its sharpest against a player who doesn’t possess the best returns among the top guys—the first serve. The southpaw put on a serving masterclass—a healthy 65 per cent first serves in and an even more impressive 80 per cent points won on first serve—to storm into his first semi-final in London since 2015.
There he met an opponent who was coming off an indoor title in Paris and who hadn’t dropped a set in the group stage, including against the top-ranked Novak Djokovic. Against Medvedev, Nadal often deployed the serve and volley, and frequently sliced the ball off his backhand to not give the Russian any pace to fire his ammunition. Leading 6-3, 5-4, it seemed to be working with Nadal on course for his first final spot since 2013. But an unusually steep drop in level while serving for the match saw him broken to love. Shot in the arm received, the big-striking Medvedev bagged the second set tie-breaker and dominated the out-of-gas Spaniard in the decider.
“I played a bad game. That’s it. But I had a big opportunity. I lost a big opportunity,” Nadal said.
An opportunity while feeling physically fresh owing to the pandemic-shortened season; an opportunity while playing out of his comfort zone that showed he can compete again for that one missing crown.
“I don’t want to pretend to be arrogant at all, because I am not. But I really don’t need to show even to myself or to no one that if I am playing my best tennis, I think I can win in every surface and against any player,” Nadal said.