Of all the nuggets of advice that Rafael Nadal received from his uncle and first coach, Toni Nadal, the one that has served him best over the years may have been this: After you lose a set, dig in harder and do whatever it takes to break your opponent in his opening service game of the next set. The other guy is bound to have a slight dip in concentration; if you can take advantage of it, you’ll stop his momentum cold, and restart yours.
That’s just what happened at the start of the third set in Nadal’s 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Nitto ATP Finals on Thursday. And it’s ultimately what catapulted him to victory.
Nadal had been the better player for nearly the entirety of the first two sets. In his first nine service games, he didn’t face a break point, and he constantly put pressure on Tsitsipas’s serve; he always seemed to be one winner away from breaking the match open. But at 4-5 in the second, Nadal stumbled just enough to hand Tsitsipas his first break point, and then handed him the set with his only double fault of the night. For many players, this unexpected disaster would have lingered well into the next set. But not with Rafa.
In the opening game of the third, he came up with a highlight-reel forehand pass that seemed to stun Tsitsipas. The Greek proceeded to make three errors—there was that dip in concentration Uncle Toni talked about—and was broken. Granted, that game didn’t decide the match; the two players traded breaks in the next two games. But Nadal had put the second-set disappointment behind him, and his confidence gradually rose as the third set progressed.
Overall, this was about as well as Nadal can play indoors. He used his serve to win free points and set up his forehand. He took his ground strokes as close to the baseline as he could, and moved into the net whenever he had a chance. He won points the way he usually wins them up there, with deft angles, drop volleys, and thunderous, no-hesitation overheads. He kept the ball high to Tsitsipas’s one-handed backhand, and low to his topspin forehand, as often as he could. When he wasn’t moving Tsitsipas along the baseline with his offense, Rafa was forcing him to aim close to the lines, and eventually to miss those lines, with his defense.
The win advances Nadal to the semifinals at this event for the sixth time, and first since 2015. In the same way that he gradually adjusted to the colder conditions and heavier balls at Roland Garros this year, Nadal has adjusted his game to the low-bouncing indoor court in London this week. It has never served him well in the past; this is the one significant title in tennis he hasn’t won. Can he change that this weekend? It won’t be easy: He’ll face Daniil Medvedev in the semis, and possibly Novak Djokovic in the final. But judging by the way he played today, Rafa has done everything he could to give himself a chance.