On Thursday evening, Rafael Nadal will face Stefanos Tsitsipas for the seventh time, seeking the sixth victory and the semi-final berth at the ATP Finals. Trying to reach the last four at the premium ATP event for the first time in five years, Nadal has to beat the Greek to join Dominic Thiem in the semis.
A year ago, Nadal toppled Tsitsipas in the round-robin stage after two hours and 51 minutes, having to repeat that if he wants to remain on the course for the first ATP Finals trophy. World no. 2 made a great start in London, beating Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 17 minutes.
The second clash proved to be a much more challenging task, as Rafa played against the last year's finalist Dominic Thiem. The Austrian grabbed his sixth victory over the Spaniard following a thrilling 7-6, 7-6 triumph in two hours and 25 minutes, sailing into the semis and leaving Rafa and Stefanos to determine the second passenger.
Like in Melbourne in January, Thiem won the decisive points against Rafa, fending off two set points in the opener and erasing a break deficit in the second to prevail in straight sets and become the seventh player with six triumphs over Rafa.
There were only two breaks of serves in games seven and eight of set number two, with two rivals staying neck and neck and producing an excellent level of tennis that was well-worth the title clash. The opening set lasted for an hour and 12 minutes, and it was probably the finest we have seen in 2020.
Nadal had 16 winners and seven unforced errors, while Thiem fired 21 direct points and 12 mistakes. The Spaniard built the advantage in the more extended rallies but lost ground in the shortest exchanges up to four strokes.
There were no break chances, and Rafa had the opportunity to clinch the set, opening a 5-2 gap in the breaker and wasting set points at 6-5 and 7-6!
Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas seek the semi-final spot in their group.
Nadal held with a volley winner in the opening game and took the opening two points on the return in the next one before Thiem rattled off four straight points to add his name on the scoreboard with a service winner.
Attacking the net, the Spaniard delivered another quick hold to move 2-1 in front, followed by an equally impressive service game from the Austrian, who fired a forehand down the line winner to lock the result at 2-2. Nadal moved 3-2 in front with another strong delivery at the net, reaching deuce on the return in game six with a forehand down the line winner.
Thiem survived two deuces and held after a perfect drop shot to remain in contention. From 30-0 down in game nine, Rafa took four points to earn a hold and force the rival to serve for staying in the set. With no sign of nerves, Dominic held at 15 twice to reach a tie break.
Nadal grabbed the opening four return points to open a 5-2 gap thanks to a forehand winner, losing the next three points but creating a set point at 5-5. Thiem won that 12th point when Nadal netted a backhand, fending off another at 6-7 with a forehand crosscourt winner.
A service winner earned the Austrian's first set point, seizing it with a great forehand crosscourt winner to steal the set after 72 minutes. Dominic saved a break point in the first game of the second set but failed to do the same at 3-3 when Rafa placed a forehand down the line winner to secure the encounter's first break.
Ready to give his best, Thiem pulled the break back straight away after a forehand winner, leveling the score at 4-4 to increase the drama. The Austrian held after deuce in game nine, forcing world no. 2 to serve for staying in the match.
Facing three match points in that tenth game, Rafa remained calm and erased them all, taking five straight points and securing the game with a backhand down the line winner for a great escape. Both players served well in games 11 and 12 to set another tie break, a must-win one for the Spanish player.
Dominic moved 4-3 ahead with a cracking backhand down the line winner, hitting another strong backhand to increase the advantage. A forehand winner brought three match points for the Austrian and he converted the first when Rafa sprayed a backhand error to move over the top and reach the semis.