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Rafa Wins • Saved A Match Point In The Nitto ATP Tennis Finals • Unreal Comeback Over Medvedev

By ALIX Ramsay 

We should have known. As soon as Rafa Nadal lost his opening match and was furious with himself for his lack of fight, we should have known.

Rafa? Not competing flat out on every point? Surely not. But that is how he lost to Sascha Zverev on Monday and that was what he had to avoid at all costs if he was to stand a chance against Daniil Medvedev on Wednesday. And, oh, how he fought against Medvedev.

After two hours and 46 minutes, after coming back from the very brink of defeat, he got his first win on the board at the Nitto ATP Finals, beating the world No.4 6-7, 6-3, 7-6.

True enough, Sascha played very well on Monday but Rafa, by his own admission, didn’t. He really didn’t. He played better against Daniil, but only in patches. But what he did do was fight. From a set down. From 4-0 down in the third set. From break points down at 4-0 down. From match point down at 5-1. And as he first hung on to avoid the third set bagel and then hung on to make his rival serve for the match, he crushed Daniil’s confidence and spirit. The big Russian unravelled before Rafa’s eyes and the game was on.

By that third set, the two had been at each other’s throats for more than an hour and a half. Daniil was tidier in the first set – he had one break point but was not allowed to take it – and he was in charge in the tiebreak. And then Raf took a bathroom break.

The hiatus lasted longer than Daniil thought necessary but by the time he had a chance to make his point to Mohamed Lahyani, he was already a break down in the second set. Rafa had caught him cold after the delay. That was the second set wrapped up: too many errors from Medvedev, much more aggression from Nadal.

And then Daniil took a bathroom break. Judging by the look on his face, he was doing so just to prove a point. When he came back, the errors came from Rafa’s side of the net and the momentum had swung back in the Russian’s favour. Rafa could do nothing right (from having won every point he played at the net in the first two sets, he now could not land a winner for love not money) and Daniil was cruising. After 19 minutes, the man from Moscow was two breaks to the good and comfortably in control.

For all the hard work Raf had done in the first two sets and for all that he had battled for every point, accepting that his forehand was not firing as he wanted, persisting with the wayward shot until he got it under control – for all that, he was a different man in the first six games of that third set. As soon as Daniil took the lead, the spirit seemed to drain out of the Spaniard. He was error-strewn and listless. It was as if he had accepted the inevitable and could not wait for the match to be over.

The crowd could not quite believe it and they were quiet and edgy. This was not the Rafa they had watched over the years, the man who never knows when he is beaten. Daniil was playing well but no one cheered. No one dared to make any noise. Somehow it would be rude to intrude on Rafa’s personal misery like that. One lady sitting at the side of the court watched the whole of the third set with her fingers crossed. She was probably not alone.

Four-love and a couple of break points for Medvedev. Surely this was the end. But, wait. Let’s see. Rafa stood his ground – just – and closed out the game with an ace. 4-1. Well, that’s the embarrassing bagel avoided. Still Daniil kept going: 5-1.

By this stage, Rafa’s stats for the third set looked like a horror show: 13 unforced errors to four winners, two of 12 points won on second serve. He was being eaten alive by the Russian. Then came the match point after two hours and 14 minutes (thanks to another backhand error). That was when Raf showed just how and why he has won 19 grand slam titles – most recently against Daniil at the US Open – and why he is the current world No.1. He averted the danger with the deftest of drop shots that brought the error from the now worried Russian. OK: 5-2. That looks a little better.

When he won the first point on Medvedev’s serve in the next game, he let out a howl of “Vamos!”. Now he was back in business. He broke for 5-3 and he knew he had a chance. Now was the time to fight as never before.

“With 5-3, when you have the first break, then you are only one break away,” Rafa explained, making it sound like this was the most normal of situations. “I know from personal experience how tough it is to close out the matches, especially when you have two breaks in front and you lose the first one. From that moment, I thought I have a chance.”

As Rafa reeled in his catch, Daniil looked utterly lost. He shouted at his team, he made sarcastic signs to the crowd – they had been silent when Rafa was struggling but they were raising the rafters now that Daniil was on the ropes – and when Raf got the set back on level terms at 5-5, he made the same signal to his team as injured footballers do to their coach when they need to be substituted. Unfortunately for him, there are no subs in tennis.

He only emerged from this mental fug as he served to stay in the match. Rafa had won the first two points of the game but with defeat just seconds away, Daniil laid into his serve and with three aces and a service winner, he got to the tiebreak. It didn’t win him the match but it did prove that he, too, could fight.

“I have been super lucky today,” Rafa said. “Sorry for Daniil. Is a tough loss. He was playing much better than me in the third set. Is only one out of 1000 matches like this that you win.”

And if anybody wanted to label Daniil as a choker for the way he faded in the third set, Rafa had a word of warning.

“He’s able to change the dynamic of the match when the things are not going the way that he wants,” Rafa explained.

“For example, I saw the match in Cincinnati against Novak that he started to serve huge first and second. In New York that he did just a few serve and volley during the whole tournament. Against me, he started to do serve and volley and playing down the line big shots when normally he plays more cross.

“He’s able to change. And when a player has that ability and the mind open to do these things when the things are not in the right way, is because he’s very solid mentally and a player that should be in the highest position of the rankings for a long time.”

The problem for Daniil is that Rafa, too, can change when he needs to and after 17 years of doing it at the very top level, he is just a little better at it than most others. Or, as Daniil pointed out on Monday after losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas: “That’s what is amazing about top three, big three and Murray before, that even when you kind of look at them and you think, OK, they are not playing as good as they can, they still win these matches.”

After what happened on Monday, we should have known.

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