David Goffin will take a win over one of the Big 5 any way he can get it. The 26-year-old Belgian has been an elite player for a few years now, and he has pushed the top guys to the brink a few times, but before today he was just 2-21 against Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka.
Make that 3-21. In a battle of the walking wounded, Goffin, who has had his injured right knee taped for months, beat Nadal, whose own right knee injury became more obvious as the match progressed, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4. By the second set, Nadal was flexing his knee, which had forced him to pull out of his last tournament, in Bercy. By the third set, he was limping. When it was over, he waved good-bye to the O2 crowd for good, and a few minutes later he put an end to his 2017 season by pulling out of the tournament.
“I had a great season, I’m not going to cry,” said Nadal of his 2017, in which he won two Grand Slam titles and became the oldest man, at 31, to claim the year-end No. 1 ranking.
Nadal said he decided midway through the match that he would probably have to pull the plug. But you wouldn’t have known that from the way he tried to work his way back in. With Goffin serving for the win at 5-3, Nadal broke. Serving at 4-5, Rafa saved one match point and held. Serving at 5-6, he saved three more match points with a brilliant series of go-for-broke winners. After dropping the first two points of the tiebreaker, he played his best tennis in a month to win it 7-4. In the third set, Nadal, despite struggling to move and falling behind two breaks, came back again and forced Goffin to serve it out at 5-4. This time Goffin was up to the task, and he closed it out with his 14th ace, on his fifth match point.
Goffin was 0-2 versus Rafa before today, but it was clear from the start that the low-bouncing London surface was going to work in his favor. Rather than kicking up around Goffin’s shoulders, Rafa’s crosscourt forehand bounced right into his strike zone, and right into his favorite, point-opening shot, his down-the-line backhand. Only Nadal’s nothing-left-to-lose fighting spirit, and Goffin’s chronic inability to nail the coffin shut against a top player, kept Rafa in this one. Still, sometimes it takes a little good fortune to give a player confidence to do what he hasn’t done before. Goffin has done a lot in 2017; will beating Rafa give him a little added boost as he heads into the Davis Cup final next weekend, and what looks like a promising 2018?
As for Nadal, he said he didn’t think his 2017 deserved to end this way, and he’s right. On the other hand, he lasted longer, and played more, this season than he has in many years past. For the first time in a decade, he played all four majors and all nine Masters 1000s. It caught up with him in the fall, and maybe, with the No. 1 ranking already clinched, he shouldn’t have come to London; he has, after all, missed this tournament five times in the past. But in 2017, Nadal has played virtually everywhere, and he wanted to give himself a chance to end this special season on a high note. You can never fault Rafa for trying.