Rafa Nadal has quit in pain at the Nitto ATP Finals in London with a nagging knee problem after losing his opening group match 7-6 6-7 6-4 to David Goffin. He made the decision before the end of the thrilling encounter at the 02.
And the 31-year-old, who won the French and US Open in 2017, declared: “I really believe that I don’t deserve after this great season to spend two more days on court with these terrible feelings.”
Nadal was clearly troubled by the injury which forced him to retire before his quarter-final at the recent Paris Masters.
My season is finished. I had the commitment with the event, the city, myself. I tried hard. I did the thing I had to do to try to be ready to play. But I really am not ready to play. Rafa Nadal
The oldest world No.1 in ranking history went in with plenty of incentive. It was the only major tournament he has failed to win in his glittering career.
The last one with uncle and coach Toni Nadal, in his corner for 28 of his 31 years, as he went into his eighth attempt to lift the elusive crown.
But body overcame the mind in a two hour, 38-min roller-coaster epic against Goffin which brought the tournament alive in front of 17,000 spectators and millions on television.
Nadal, who came back this year after being sidelined, said: “My season is finished. I had the commitment with the event, the city, myself. I tried hard. I did the thing I had to do to try to be ready to play. But I really am not ready to play.
“I really fight a lot knowing that it probably was a big chance to be my last match.
“It is not a decision at all. It is about the pain. I cannot hold with enough power to keep playing. But it was a miracle to be very close in the score.
“I knew during the match (it would be my last one of the season). Not a decision I made five minutes ago. If I won or lost I was going to pull out. I was not enjoying on court at all. Was not fun to play like this.
“I am disappointed but I am not going to cry. I had a great season. Appreciate all the things that happened to me. I thank life for this unforgettable year.”
There was no retirement talk and he vowed to try to keep at the top of the game.
Nadal, who even took time out to sign autographs despite his upset after the match, said: “I am going to work hard to try to give me more chances the next season to keep being at the top and fighting for the most important things. I know what I have to do from what happened in the past (with knee trouble).Thank you and Merry Christmas everyone.”
Nadal’s fitness was thrown into question when he dropped the first set against Goffin. Perhaps the knee injury was not up to the rigours of this hard court.
His game was riddled with mistakes and he twice dropped his serve, in the third and eleventh games.
Fortunately for the Spaniard his opponent seemed equally erratic as he broke back in the sixth and when the Belgian served for the set at 6-5 with Goffin throwing in two double faults to aid the world No.1’s cause.
But Goffin’s nerve held in a tight tie-break, claiming the set when Nadal netted a backhand.
It had taken 54 minutes but the elfin-like Goffin had the advantage over his more muscular, physical opponent.
It was even stevens during the second set until Goffin broke Nadal with a superb forehand return to go 5-3 up.
But the Belgian’s nerve deserted him and a double-fault gifted Nadal the next game with the Spaniard’s fabled double-handed backhand cross court aiding his cause.
Goffin, though, had Nadal on the ropes in the next game as his backhand down the line secured the Belgian his first match point.
But when the going gets tough, the tough get going and Nadal dug deep to claw his way out of trouble to make it 5-5.
Unruffled, Goffin, cruised back in front, his swift movement and shot-making a joy, forcing Nadal to serve to stay in the match.
The warrior in Nadal was tested again as Goffin secured three more match points on his serve, but the world No.1 saved each of them – his backhand proving more and more a weapon – and the set went into a tie-break.
Nadal took an iron grip on it and sealed four set points. Goffin saved two of them but not a third as he netted a forehand.
The match had run seven minutes short of two hours.
Goffin put his frustrations behind him to break Nadal in the third game of the deciding set.
The Spaniard was struggling to change direction, no doubt troubled by the knee problem, and Goffin secured a second break for 4-1.
But Nadal broke back and held, refusing to accept what looked to be his first loss to Goffin in three.
He successfully served to stay in the match leaving Goffin with the responsibility of finishing matters. And the Belgian did.
Goffin said: “It was a special win against such a big fighter in a great atmosphere.
On the paper it’s the best win of my career, for sure, to beat Rafa. I saw that he was struggling a little bit with his movement on the court, and his knee was suffering a little bit. But anyway it was tough. It was tough even if he was not moving 100%.
“He was hitting the ball really hard. It was not easy. It’s never easy to finish a match, to finish a set against him. Even if I lost four match points in the second, I had no regret. I kept going in the third.”
Grigor Dimitrov reckons he has to fight fire with fire with the favourites to “bring them down” and lift the ATP World Tour final title.
And he reckons the “sky’s the limit” for him in 2018.
Earlier in the day Dimitrov scored a debut victory in the event with a tight 6-3 5-7 7-6 victory over Austrian Dominc Thiem.
The Bulgarian, dubbed Baby Federer because of his elegant style and one-handed backhand, appears to be reaching his potential after years of promise, having reached a career-high world ranking of six to qualify.
But Dimitrov, 26, knows how to deal with the big guns, having found more resilience this year.
He said: “I think overall your level has to be, even when you’re not playing good, strong enough. I think this is obviously one of the most important things.
“I always consider myself as that aggressive player. I always want to have that mindset. I think this is one of the most important things, not only to win this event, but any event.
“Picture, for example, playing a Slam. You’re in the fifth set, and you need to win seven of those matches. This is where it all comes down to that aggressive mindset. Carrying on with that positivity that you’ve built up.
“There’s so many things you need to complete in order to win any of those titles. That’s why we see how things are right now and who is winning them, it’s because of that.
“They’ve been doing this for not one, not two, but ten years already. So in order to beat them and bring them down – they’re not going to give it to you – you have to go grab it. The best is yet to come. I’m super-excited. I’m here to compete. I’ve done a lot more work on and off court. It’s finally coming together. The sky’s the limit.”
His tight victory over fourth-seed Thiem was ground out as he claimed it on his third match point after throwing away a one-set advantage.
He was unable to serve out the match after being given his first opportunity but Thiem gifted him another with a couple of double faults.
Dimitrov said: “I felt pretty nervous. I’d never been out here. It was an experience I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. But that barrier is broken.”
Thiem, 24, know he needs to step up his game.
He said: “It was not bad. I improved a lot since the last tournaments. But still there were many things which were not good. I have one practice tomorrow to fix this stuff for myself. The opponent, whoever it will be on Wednesday, is completely different to Grigor. I will just focus on myself, have a good, productive practice, and then obviously try everything to win the game on Wednesday to still have a shot for the semi-finals in the last game.”