As the end of the year looms closer, the tennis circus entered the period of ‘end-of-season extravaganzas’ – last week the younger element took to the stage in Milan with America’s Brandon Nakashima taking the top Next Gen ATP Finals honours with the ‘seniors’ this week, emulating them in Turin with the ATP Finals sponsored by the Japanese conglomerate Nitto, with Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic heading the two groups.
Serving like Fritz served, then you are under pressure all the time. When somebody is serving that way, on the return he is going for every shot. Just well played from him, not enough from me! Rafa Nadal
Nadal has never won this prestigious title and it is something he would dearly like to rectify only to stumble in his first Green Group match against Taylor Fritz, the world No’1’s replacement, Carlos Alcaraz having to absent himself with an injury picked up earlier.
The result proved to be the second upset of the day as the event was opened in the afternoon with Casper Ruud taking down Felix Auger Aliassime 7-6(4) 6-4.
Fritz, making his debut at the event, defeated Nadal convincingly 7-6(1) 6-1 as the Spanish icon struggled to get his physical game going since the US Open.
“It feels great. I felt like coming out first match, especially for my hopes of getting out of the group, it was going to be really important,” a delighted Fritz said. “I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I needed to win out if I wanted to move on. I came out and played a great match, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Fritz was flawless on serve throughout the first set, as Nadal saved three break points but was punished for conceding two mini-breaks in the tiebreak.
Nadal was then broken twice in the second set by the eighth seed, who hit eight aces, 23 winners and didn’t face a single break point throughout the match on a fast surface that well suited his style of play.
“The court’s definitely fast. For me, fast is good for my serve, it’s good for my backhand,” he explained to the crowd. “I feel like different speeds always have parts that help my game, and parts that hurt my game. On a slower court, I have so much more time to kind of load up on a forehand.
“On a court like this, I can lean into my backhand and hit it deep cross to Rafa’s forehand, and it makes it a lot tougher for him to step in and crush it. On a slower surface, he gets time on the forehand when I go backhand cross, and it’s probably done for me. So I’d say that’s where it helps me the most on the ground against him.”
Nadal still has a chance at the No. 1 ranking but now must reach at least the final.
“We can find different ways to explain what happened, at the end, Fritz played very well,” Nadal admitted. “I was not able to handle his power. It’s obvious that on this kind of surface, you need to play very well. You don’t have time to think for a tactic.
“Serving like Fritz served, then you are under pressure all the time. When somebody is serving that way, on the return he is going for every shot. Just well played from him, not enough from me!
“It’s about time,” the 36-year-old, 22 -time grand slam winner added. “I have less time than him to do what I want to do on the ball. I felt that everything was going so fast.”
Nadal now needs to win both his remaining matches against Green Group opponents Ruud and Auger-Aliassime if he is to make the semi-finals.
Nadal, who had not played on the tour since the US Open in September, also admitted he is struggling to rediscover his best form after recent injuries.
“Normally I try to come back in lower events,” Nadal revealed. “Normally you don’t need to play at your top to win a couple of matches. Then if you made that happen, when you face the top players, you are more ready.
“On most of the points of the match, I was in a defensive position and he was in an offensive position. That’s what happened. That’s something that was difficult to avoid for me because you need to be quicker on your legs, quicker in your mind.”
“That’s what’s happening when you are coming back,” he pointed out.
As briefly mentioned, earlier the Norwegian Casper Ruud, a semi-finalist at this event a year ago, had all the answers to get the better of his Canadian opponent.
Auger Aliassime, who is making his debut at the event, arrived having won 16 of his last 17 matches whilst Ruud has been struggling somewhat to recreate the form which took him into this year’s US Open final.
“I think this is some of the best level that I have played since the US Open,” Ruud admitted. “The last couple of months have been a little bit of a struggle, I have to honestly say that, but you have to accept it as well. You will face difficult moments in your career, and maybe these last couple of months was one of those.
“It doesn’t matter how hard you practice if you don’t win matches, so today was a great win for me.”
The match itself was competitive early on but Auger-Aliassime was obviously struggling with his returns as Ruud was able to start dominating him with his serve.
Despite that difference, the first set went to a tie-break and where Ruud managed to clock up two set points, with Auger-Aliassime conceding the set with a long forehand.
Auger-Aliassime’s backhand also proved a weakness and Ruud capitalised on that in the second set and at 3-3 the Canadian erred again, this time on his forehand, handing the Norwegian two break points.
Ruud converted the break point opportunity to go and take the set and post his opening win in straight sets.
“Felix has been on a roll this fall and I knew he was going to come out strong,” Ruud said after his win.
“I was playing well, I found some of my best level that I have played in recent months, so I am extremely happy to be able to bring that out here in the finals. I knew if I wanted to have any chance against any of the guys in my group I would have to bring my A-game, and today I was able to do so.”
Auger Aliassime and Nadal will be back in action on Tuesday to face each other while the two opening day winners, will take on each other in a tussle for the top spot on the Green Group table.
In the interim on Monday, Djokovic will face Stefanos Tsitsipas and the two Moscow residents Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev will face each other to get the Red Group under way. Red Group