LONDON — Defending champion Alexander Zverev pulled off another big win at the ATP Finals, beating top-ranked Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4 Monday for his first career victory over the Spaniard.
Nadal had a 5-0 record against Zverev but had an uncharacteristically mistake-filled performance at the O2 Arena.
In his first match since pulling out of the Paris Masters semifinals with an abdominal injury just nine days ago, Nadal dropped his serve three straight times, didn’t force a single break point, and his normally powerful forehand was responsible for more than four times as many unforced errors (13) as winners (3).
Still, Nadal insisted his poor play wasn’t the result of any physical problem.
“I did not feel pain in the abdominal at all,” he said. “So the physical issue was not an excuse at all. The only excuse is I was not good enough tonight.”
The whole thing was over in just 84 minutes and means Zverev has beaten each of tennis’ Big Three in his last three matches at the O2.
The German defeated six-time champion Roger Federer in last year’s semifinals and then five-time winner Novak Djokovic in the final.
Nadal has a history of being far from his best at the ATP Finals, which comes at the end of a gruelling season that often takes its toll on the Spaniard because of his ultra-physical playing style. He has qualified for the event for 15 years in a row but has pulled out of it on six occasions because of injuries. He has never won the title, reaching the final twice.
This year he hasn’t finished a tournament since winning the U.S. Open in August, also pulling out of Shanghai because of a hand injury. But he showed up to London hoping to stave off Djokovic for the year-end No. 1 ranking.
Djokovic won his opening match on Sunday and this loss cuts Nadal’s lead over the Serb to just 440 points in the rankings table – each round-robin win is worth 200 points – with a total of 1,300 more points up for grabs for each player.
“Knowing that I would not be at my 100% in terms of feelings, in terms of movement, in terms of confidence or hitting the ball, I needed my best competitive spirit this afternoon, and I was not there in that way,” Nadal said. “I need to play much better in two days.”
Earlier, Stefanos Tsitsipas earned his first career win over Daniil Medvedev – a victory that clearly meant a lot to the Greek.
Not only because Tsitsipas was 0-5 against the Russian before winning 7-6 (5), 6-4, or that it came in his ATP Finals debut.
But mainly because two of the biggest rising stars in tennis simply don’t like each other that much.
“It’s a victory that I craved for a long time now, and it’s great that it came at this moment,” Tsitsipas said. “Our chemistry definitely isn’t the best that you can find on the tour. It’s not that I hate him (but) we will not go to dinner together.”
The grudge dates to their first meeting, in Miami last year, when Medvedev berated Tsitsipas for not apologizing after hitting a net cord during a point, a spat that ended with both players trading insults on court.
“After that, I think I didn’t win a single game. He did get into my head, and I was very frustrated that it did go this way,” Tsitsipas said. “He started telling me that I should apologize, that what I do is unsportsmanlike. . Somehow it did affect me. I did get (angry) and said what I said, which I do regret, but at the time I was very frustrated.”
Since that match, Medvedev had earned another four straight wins over Tsitsipas, including in the Shanghai semifinals in October.
But on Monday, the sixth-seeded Greek earned the only break of the match to take a 5-4 lead in the second set and clinched the win with a forehand overhead at the net.
“He was better today, but I felt like I was missing some things,” Medvedev said. “This frustrates me after. I do think it would frustrate me against any other opponent. I hate to lose against anybody. Of course I wanted to make it even more bigger head-to-head, but it’s the way it is.”
Both players are making their debut at the year-end tournament for the world’s top eight players, which features a round robin before the semifinals. Medvedev established himself as one of the best hard-court players on tour this season, reaching the U.S. Open final and winning four titles on the surface.
But Tsitispas – the first Greek player to qualify for the ATP Finals – used an aggressive forehand to keep the Russian from dictating the match, coming to the net 26 times and winning 22 of those points.
On Tuesday, Federer faces Matteo Berrettini and Djokovic takes on Dominic Thiem.