Rafael Nadal endured Alex de Minaur’s very best tennis and clinched Spain an ATP Cup final berth on Saturday night in Sydney.
The World No. 1 was down a set and hadn’t seen a break point all night until De Minaur served to stay in the second set, at 6-4, 5-6. But the Spaniard converted his first break point that game and stepped up from there, breaking three more times in the third to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Spain will now face Novak Djokovic and Serbia for the inaugural ATP Cup title. Serbia reached the final earlier Saturday behind wins from Dusan Lajovic (d. Khachanov) and Djokovic (d. Medvedev) against Russia.
“It was tough at the beginning of the match as Alex was playing at a very high level and my energy was a little lower than usual. Yesterday was a very long day in heavy conditions,” Nadal said.
“It’s going to be a super tough final against Serbia. Novak likes to play here and Serbia has a great team and is playing very well. But Roberto played an amazing match this afternoon and we have a good team, so we are ready for it.”
Nadal lost to Belgian David Goffin on Friday night, and the Spaniard hadn’t dropped consecutive matches since October 2016, when he fell to Grigor Dimitrov in the China Open quarter-finals and Viktor Troicki at the Rolex Shanghai Masters five days later. Nadal also had never endured back-to-back losses in his 206 weeks as the World No. 1.
But De Minaur was playing the tennis of his life in front of a raucous Aussie crowd. De Minaur broke Nadal to start the match and held to love as he served for the set, taking the opener behind back-to-back forehand winners.
For the first two sets, De Minaur had Nadal on defence, taking the ball early and cutting off the angles to nudge the Spaniard behind the baseline. Nadal controlled his service games but rarely made in-roads on De Minaur’s serve.
Before the 12th game of the second set, the Aussie had dropped only two service points all set. But at 5-6, De Minaur sliced a backhand into the net to give Nadal set point, which the Spaniard converted and just like that, despite De Minaur’s 17 winners that set, they were even.
“You need to have the mind open and clear to find solutions, and I was not able to win many points on the return during all the second set. I needed to change something, and that’s what I did,” Nadal said.
“I think I advanced my position around one metre, one metre and a half on the return, on the Deuce [side] especially, and I take the first point. And then the game change, because then the pressure is on the other side of the court.
“I just tried to change a little bit the dynamic, tried to change a little bit the energy of the match in that moment and tried to make the opponent feel something different that it’s not going the same way that it had been going for the last 30 minutes.”
In the third, Nadal accelerated and De Minaur cooled off as the Spaniard jumped out to a 4-0 lead and quieted the crowd inside Ken Rosewall Arena.
“He changed his game plan a bit more. He started to step up in the court a bit more and not let me dictate as much. Therefore, I felt like I had to push a bit more, and that’s when the mistakes came,” De Minaur said.
“For me to play the match, I’ve got to play a very aggressive game. I’m red-lining for a lot of that match, so a couple missed balls here and there, and he ended up just being too good.”
Earlier, Roberto Bautista Agut dismissed Nick Kyrgios 6-1, 6-4 to give Spain a 1-0 lead.
“Nick is a great talent so to beat him in two sets means I did a great job. My game plan was trying to make him under pressure to play every point and to make him work the whole match,” Bautista Agut said. “Tennis is a tough job. We are used to coming to the court very tired and having to still play and give our best on the court and that’s what Spain does every time.”