Rafa Nadal overcame Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7(4) 6-4 7-5 under the O2’s dome on Friday afternoon not knowing whether it was enough to secure a semi-final showdown against Roger Federer at the ATP Finals the following day.
I don't know if I see you tomorrow because it depends on this evening’s match, but I did all that I could today. If I am able to play in front of you tomorrow against Roger, it will be a huge honour. Rafa Nadal
If Daniil Medvedev could beat reigning champion Alexander Zverev in the evening, the Spaniard was assured of a meeting with his greatest rival.
If Zverev won, the 33-year-old would be out.
Either way, Nadal was philosophical because he would at least have the consolation of taking home at trophy after being presented one for finishing the year world No.1 for the fifth time by departing ATP chairman and president Chris Kermode.
Nadal, ensured of top spot when Novak Djokovic was beaten by Federer the previous evening, said: “It’s a real honour to receive this trophy. Honestly, what can I say? I am super happy.
“After all the things I went through in my career in terms of injuries, I never thought at the age of 33 and a half I would have this trophy in my hands again. It’s something really, really emotional for me, a lot of work. Without all my team and family that is here, this would be impossible, so thank you very, very much.
“There have been some bad moments and you [my team] have been always there so honestly, like this year, before Monte Carlo, after Monte Carlo, without the support of all these people, things will be much different to me. They encourage me to keep going and I can’t thank them enough.
“This trophy is an achievement for all year around so personally today I can’t thank enough to all of you for all the support in this personal match and all the time I have been playing here in London.
“But at the same time, I have to say because it’s something I really feel from the bottom of my heart, to all the fans that give me their support from around the world.
He added to the crowd: “I don’t know if I see you tomorrow because it depends on this evening’s match, but I did all that I could today. If I am able to play in front of you tomorrow against Roger, it will be a huge honour.
“If not, I really hope to see you next year.”
Nadal, who battled back from injuries in the first part of the year, added to the media prior to the Medvedev-Zverev showdown: “Honestly, if I am not in that semifinals, is not like when you lose the tournament, a normal tournament, because at some point is a different feeling. I know how I arrived here. I know the preparation have been very short for me and not the ideal one after the injury in Bercy.
“So for me was important to give me a chance to compete better than what I did the first day. The first day have been a tough day. I think in general terms I was ready to play a little bit better but indoor, and it’s true that I only played one normal set before the tournament start, the day before, no?
“So preparation have been very short, and is the worst tournament possible to arrive without the best preparation possible, because in other tournaments sometimes you can be a little bit more lucky with the draw. You can win two matches, and then you have a tough one but you will be more ready, more prepared for it, no?
“But here, the first day you play one of the best players of the world in a tough surface, so if you don’t arrive with plenty of confidence on your body and your movements and everything, things become much more difficult, no? And I think that’s what happened.
“Then I think I have been improving on my tennis every day. Look, if I’m not in that semifinals, I go to Madrid (for Davis Cup next week) with positive confidence that I am playing better and better. For me was important, more than being in that semifinals or not – of course I would love to be – is to go from here with the feeling that I did all the things possible to be there and to finalise the ATP year with a positive feeling, no? And that’s what I did, because I think I played a good match today.”
Nadal, the Comeback King, galloped along Quality Street to defeat Tsitsipas in a skilled encounter.
The Spaniard looked a shadow of his intense competitive self when he lost to reigning champion Alexander Zverev in his opener.
Nadal was 5-1 down in the deciding set against Daniil Medvedev in his second but roared back to win.
And Tsitsipas forced him to return from a set down to seal victory in the third and final round-robin encounter for him.
Nadal knew defeat was not an option if he wanted to take the title for the first time. If the Spaniard lost, he was out.
He fought like a tiger in the opening set, combining the intense with the skilled.
But he had an opponent who also displayed the predatory instincts of a big cat in a high-standard first set.
It was ‘anything you can do I can do’ for Tsitsipas. Left-hander Nadal would crunch a trademark forehand and the sixth seed would produce a replica. Want a rally, Rafa? You can have one, Stefanos replied.
The 21-year-old Greek had defeated Nadal in his own backyard in Madrid this year, so it was clear he would not be intimidated by his opponent.
Even though he had already qualified for the semi-finals, Tsitsipas was not about to keep anything in reserve for his bid to make the decider.
It was tight, with neither giving away a break point as the set moved into a tie-break.
Tisitsipas forced an error to go a mini-break up and then earned two set points by challenging a line call as a return from Nadal was initially called in. And he took the first of them with an ace.
Nadal got a foothold back in the match at 2-2 in the second when he forced the first two break points of the match.
But Tsitsipas held his nerve and form to hold.
And the Greek fended off another break point in his next service game. And again, unruffled, he succeeded to put the pressure back on his legendary opponent.
Nadal kept himself in the match with another hold, having dropped just ten points on his serve and winning 86 per cent of his first serves.
And he finally achieved a breakthrough when he took his next break point and held to level the encounter.
Nadal was producing more winners and less unforced errors and looking to continue the trend in the deciding set.
The Spaniard and Tsitsipas battled toe to toe as they maintained the quality.
And Nadal secured a vital breakthrough when he broke the Greek for a 6-5 lead.
To rub salt into Tsitsipas’ wounds, Nadal served the next game with new balls and secured victory after 2hr.52min when the Greek dumped a sliced forehand into the net after a thunderous forehand from his opponent.
Tsitsipas said: ” During the match I thought about it (already being a qualifier) a couple of times, but at the end I really want to win, and that win means a lot to me because it’s against a tough player, the current No. 1.
“So I came very close, and I would say I did leave something in the tank. I didn’t really go full, full. I could have gone even more full than that, but I’m not disappointed by that.
“I wanted to win but probably wasn’t willing to die on the court for that. But despite that, things went well, really well. My main focus is doing well in the semifinals more than this match. But again, I wanted to win.”