Rafa Nadal’s dream of a first ATP Finals title and Novak Djokovic’s quest for a record-equalling sixth vanished in defeats by Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem respectively in two seismic semi-finals on Saturday.
As the curtain comes down on London’s 12 years as host of the ATP Tour’s prestigious season-ender, it would have been fitting for Nadal and Djokovic to face off for the 57th time in their glittering careers.
But times are a-changing, or so it seems, and Medvedev and Thiem had not read the script.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) November 21, 2020
Nadal, seeking the one major pot missing from his vast collection of silverware, must have seen the door creaking open when Thiem produced a staggering fightback to beat Djokovic 7-5 6-7(10) 7-6(5) in a classic contest lasting almost three hours. He had beaten Medvedev in each of their three meetings, including a memorable US Open final in 2019.
It seemed like he had exhausted the wily Russian’s box of tricks when he served for the match at 5-4 in the second set but Medvedev, ten years his junior at 24, stormed back to win 3-6 7-6(4) 6-3.
Whatever happens on Sunday, it will mean a fifth consecutive first-time winner of the tournament.
To put world number four Medvedev’s win into perspective, Nadal had triumphed in the last 71 matches in which he had taken the first set.
“I played a bad game at 5-4, I had a big opportunity, but well played to him,” Nadal said.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) November 22, 2020
Earlier in the empty arena, the 27-year-old Thiem saw four match points vanish in the second set tiebreak against Djokovic, one with a nervy double-fault, and it seemed he would pay a heavy price.
Djokovic, who is one short of Roger Federer’s titles record at the ATP Finals, led 4-0 in the deciding set tiebreak. But US Open champion Thiem unleashed a stunning counter-attack to reel off six points, reaching match point with a ripping crosscourt backhand.
Djokovic saved a fifth match point but then floated a defensive forehand long.
“What he did from 0-4 in the tiebreak was just unreal,” Djokovic, who won the title in London from 2012-15, told reporters. “He just crashed the ball and everything went in. What can you do?”
The defeats mean that Nadal and Djokovic’s 2020 seasons are complete and they are now hoping that the Australian Open will be able to take place in Melbourne which is due to start on 18 January. However, current government restrictions mean that players would not be able to arrive in Australia until the beginning of January and would then have to observe a two-week quarantine period, leaving almost no time to prepare for the start of the tournament.
“We just need to be patient and accept the situation that we are facing that is difficult for everyone,” said Nadal.