Nadal survives Tsitsipas and his nerves to win 80th title in Toronto

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WATCH—Rafael Nadal wins his 33rd ATP Masters tournament and 80th career title at the Rogers Cup in Montreal:

There are surprises. There are shocks. There are genuine head-scratchers. And then there’s what happened when Rafael Nadal served for the title at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on Sunday.

Nadal led his 19-year-old opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-2, 5-4. If anything, those ho-hum scores made the match appear closer than it was. From the moment he broke serve early with a forehand pass that was too hot for the teen to handle, Rafa had dominated the proceedings with ease. He had dropped just a handful of points on his serve as he ran a tired-looking Tsitsipas ragged along the baseline. On many of Nadal’s down-the-line forehand winners, Tsitsipas was so far away from the ball that all he could do was wave as it went by.

Nadal, it seemed, was poised to complete his best week of hard-court tennis since last year’s US Open, and win his first ATP Masters 1000 tournament on the surface since 2013. In his first appearance in Toronto in eight years, he had held off a stubborn Stan Wawrinka in two close sets, an on-fire Marin Cilic 6-4 in the third set, and the heavy-hitting up-and-comer Karen Khachanov in the semifinals. It seemed that the all-out-attack that Rafa had used against Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals had paid off. While he didn’t come away with a victory that day, he reminded himself that he can win a match with offense as well as defense.

That was true against Tsitsipas as well, until he served at 5-4. Nadal began the game with a tentative backhand into the net. He followed that with an even more tentative backhand long. At 15-30, he double-faulted, and at break point, he put one more backhand into the bottom of the net. Rafa’s sudden decline—every shot was now an adventure—didn’t end until he was down set point at 5-6. He only made it through that with a drop shot that clipped the top of the tape and went over.

Later, Rafa admitted that he “got tight” and played a “horrible” game at 5-4. He also said that “Masters tournaments are so difficult to win.” Considering that this was his 33rd Masters title, he likely meant that it’s difficult for him to win hard-court Masters events. Perhaps the thought of finally doing it again was enough to cause his anxiety attack.

Whatever the reason, Nadal survived his nerves. He didn’t power through them, exactly, but he didn’t let a potential disaster turn into an actual disaster. He held for 6-6, and then played the cannier, more experienced tiebreaker. He hit safely, but he also moved forward when he could, finishing one point with a smash and another with a tricky half-volley. And he ended the match with a full-throttle, not-nervous forehand winner.

Nadal also ended the week with his 80th career title, and he won the first Masters 1000 event to be played with a shot clock. Many of us wondered how this notoriously slow player would handle being timed; if anything it forced him to play with more energy and urgency.

WATCH—Nadal's championship speech:

While Nadal walked away with the winner’s trophy, Tsitsipas walked away a new player. His breakthrough week included a wins over four Top 10 players, Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and Kevin Anderson. More important, Tsitsipas showed fans a game that seems destined to age well. He has a powerful, versatile weapon in his forehand, but he also has no glaring weaknesses. That goes for his positive attitude and even-keel demeanor as well; throughout the week, Tsitsipas acted like he had been there before, even when he hadn’t. It’s safe to say he’ll be there—in big finals, on major stages—many times again. Nadal described Tsitsipas’ game as “complex” and said “he’s about everything.” Rafa knows there’s a lot to like about this kid.

After nearly giving away the second set to him, Nadal also knows there’s a lot about Tsitsipas that can make an opponent anxious. In the end, though, Nadal’s bout with that anxiety only underscored what makes him so tough in the first place. As he has so many times in the past, Rafa showed us that while the best can get nervous, it’s what they do with those nerves—hit through them, work around them, survive them at all costs—that makes them better than everyone else.

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