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ATP Finals: Nadal edges Tsitsipas but still exits

Rafael Nadal edged Stefanos Tsitsipas in a three-set thriller to ensure a winning record at the ATP Finals and is assured of finishing the season as the world No. 1.

But it still wasn’t enough to keep the Spaniard in the elite tournament and produce a blockbuster Nadal-Roger Federer semifinal.

Such is life in a round-robin event, the only one on the ATP calendar this year.

Nadal’s gripping 6-7 (4-7) 6-4 7-5 win in two hours, 52 minutes at the O2 Arena in London against the already qualified Tsitsipas gave him a 2-1 record in Group Andre Agassi.

A day after Federer’s serving masterclass against Novak Djokovic that ended the Serb’s chances of overtaking Nadal for the year-end No. 1, the left-hander didn’t face a break point himself, was sublime at the net and delivered his usual highlight-reel blows from the baseline to down the young Greek phenom.

Unfortunately for Nadal, defending champion Alexander Zverev also served great in defeating US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev in Friday’s nightcap, 6-4 7-6 (7-4). That result eliminated Nadal.

Tsitsipas, Nadal and Zverev all owned identical 2-1 records but with the first criteria to settle a three-way tie being percentage of sets won, the two “Next Gen” stars pipped the 33-year-old veteran.

Zverev gets job done

It turned out to be a dead rubber for Medvedev — although a win would have guaranteed him an extra $215,000 — after his agonizing loss to Nadal on Wednesday.

Medvedev held a 5-1 lead with a match point but couldn’t finish the job two months after the pair’s similarly gripping encounter in the US Open final.

Nadal’s win that September day lifted his grand slam tally to 19 — one behind men’s leader Federer — but he is incredibly still seeking a first title at the ATP Finals.

Ending the drought seemed unlikely a week ago, since he was a question mark to even play due to an abdominal injury. Further, Zverev crushed Nadal on Monday.

But the rally against Medvedev turned his fortunes around, even if Nadal admitted he could play plenty better.

Nadal leaves London content ahead of competing in the revamped Davis Cup next week at home in Spain.

“If I’m not in the semifinals, I go to Madrid with positive confidence that I am playing better and better,” he told reporters prior to the Zverev-Medvedev match. “For me it was important. More than being in that semifinals or not — of course I would love to be — is to go from here with the feeling that I did all the things possible to be there and to finalize the ATP year with a positive feeling, no?

“And that’s what I did, because I think I played a good match today.”

Dominic Thiem won Group Bjorn Borg on Tuesday and said Thursday after his loss to Matteo Berrettini that he was thinking ahead to the semifinals. He didn’t want to linger against the Italian.

Tsitsipas found himself in a similar position but desperately seemed intent to down Nadal for the first time on a hard court. Or maybe not.

“I didn’t really go full, full,” Tsitsipas claimed. “I could have gone even more full than that, but I’m not disappointed by that.

“I wanted to win but probably wasn’t willing to die on the court for that. But despite that, things went well, really well. My main focus is doing well in the semifinals more than this match.”

There were no break points in the first set, although Nadal did have half chances.

Uncharacteristic errors

Errors from Nadal arose at costly times in the tiebreak, at 2-2, 2-3 and 4-4. Overall, he struck 15 unforced errors in the first set, an unusually high number for him.

Nadal, though, was serving and protecting his service games well. Encouraging, since the abdominal injury had particularly affected that part of his game.

His trademark grit and desire didn’t desert him in the second set and Nadal broke for 5-4 after Tsitsipas had saved three break points in the previous two service games.

A good serve from Nadal sealed the second and he punched the air in delight.

The momentum and most of the crowd behind him, Nadal let his opponent off the hook to start the third, the unforced errors returning when he led 0-15 and 15-30.

And Nadal knew it, based on the disappointing look on his face.

Two break points vanished at 2-2, with clutch play from Tsitsipas, and he produced a pinpoint serve to save another at 3-3.

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Nadal didn’t go away and finally got his reward at 5-5 in a game that saw him deliver a stunning forehand down the line. To break, he forced Tsitsipas into a volley miscue before another hold of serve.

Tsitsipas will somehow have to recover, both mentally and physically, when he faces Federer on Saturday.

Nadal was soon presented with his year-end No. 1 trophy on court but as it turned out, won’t be returning Saturday.