In the days leading up to Rafael Nadal’s first round-robin match at the ATP Finals on Tuesday, all the talk surrounding the match centered on Rafa’s serve. Would he be able to recover from a recent abdominal injury in time to hit it at full strength? Two days before the match, his coach, Carlos Moya, said he was at 80 percent.
By Tuesday, Rafa appeared to be close to 100 percent. He smacked his serve with pace, and without pain. There was just one problem: His opponent, Alexander Zverev, was hitting his own serve even better. Much better. Instead of Nadal’s serve being the key to this match, it was Zverev’s.
The German hit 11 aces, won 88 percent of his first-serve points, and didn’t face a break point in an 84-minute 6-2, 6-4 win over the Spaniard at the 02 Arena. Zverev led from wire to wire: In the first set, he broke Rafa at love to go up 3-2, and never looked back; in the second set, he broke again in the opening game, and then leaned on his first serve to get the final five holds and his first win over Nadal in six tries.
If there was a likely place for Zverev to make that breakthrough, it was here, at a tournament where Nadal was just 16-13 for his career, with no titles. Watching this match, it was easy to see why Rafa has never loved it in London. The surface hurts him in two ways: It’s quick, and it’s low-bouncing. On defense, Rafa was rushed, and pushed from side to side. On offense, he struggled to generate the high-bouncing topspin that’s a staple of his game; instead, his backhands landed short and his forehands landed in the net. Nadal hit just three forehand winners, compared to 14 from Zverev.
While Rafa dislikes this court, Zverev thrives on it. Last year, he finished his week in London with straight-set wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, to win the biggest title of his career. Today he picked up where he left off, completing an exceedingly rare trifecta over the Big 3.
With his serve backing him up, Zverev could relax and let his ground strokes fly. He used his crosscourt forehand to move Nadal wide into his backhand side, then moved forward to finish rallies in the open court. He closed well at net, and sent a couple screaming forehand winners down the line for good measure. Zverev won 45 percent of his return points and converted on three of four break points. Most important, every time Rafa looked to ready to catch fire and get the crowd involved in the second set, Zverev doused the flames and silenced the fans with an unreturnable serve.
This was a win that Zverev has been waiting for since he squandered a match point against Nadal in Indian Wells three years ago. Doing it in straight sets helps his chances of reaching the semis and defending his title, an achievement that would have been seemed far-fetched not long ago.
For Nadal, he’s taking away what positives he can.
“I did not feel pain in the abdominal at all,” he said. “We can find reasons or excuses, but at the end of the day, what really matters is I need to play much better.”
In London, Rafa has to battle his opponents, and a court that thwarts his game at every turn. The good thing about this tournament is, even after a bad loss, it’s too early to count the world No. 1 out.
For more reaction, watch Paul Annacone, Jim Courier and Brett Haber discuss the result's ramifications on Tennis Channel Live: