To get a sense of the mood and stakes leading into Thursday night’s win-and-advance, lose-and-go-home clash between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Rafael Nadal, scroll through the Greek millennial’s recent Instagram posts.
The defending Nitto ATP Finals champion’s first post upon arriving in London, before play started, was about being kind. After his first match, he posted, “Action first, prayer second”. And after his prayers were answered in his win against Andrey Rublev Tuesday, he set the stage perfectly for his must-win match against Nadal: “Every man for himself.”
The Inferno—the first part of Dante Alighieri’s epic 14th Century poem describing his journey through the nine circles of Hell also could be a preview of what may be one of the matches of the season Thursday night. “There is no greater sorrow then to recall our times of joy in wretchedness.”
Tsitsipas said, in essence, after his win Tuesday that he’s ready to descend through at least three circles, or sets, of the fiery gates of Hell to get past Nadal and into the event’s semi-finals. “I know it will require a lot of physical effort, and I’m going to have to go through a lot of pain and suffering, so it is going to be difficult match,” said Tsitsipas, 22. “Yeah, I’m expecting a fight from my side.”
Providing the fight of his life is exactly what the Mallorcan great will have in mind after playing unbelievably good tennis against Dominic Thiem but still coming up short. He blasted 25 winners against 16 unforced errors but it wasn’t enough to defeat the Austrian. After the match, Nadal credited his opponent, as he always does, but insisted that, despite the loss, he’s feeling more confident now than he was before the tournament began.
“[Thiem] played, I think, an amazing match, and I played well too,” said Nadal, 33, who recently notched his 1,000th tour-level win at the Rolex Paris Masters. “So my feeling is not negative… I think my chances are bigger to have a very good result now than five days ago because the level of tennis, even if I lost today, for me is much higher.”
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The Spanish legend has just about every other trophy imaginable in his museum in Manacor, so there’s no doubt that he’ll leave everything on the court against Tsitsipas to avoid being sent home early. With both men entering the match with 1-1 round-robin records, Nadal might be a slight favourite based upon his exceedingly strong form and the fact that he’s won five of their six ATP Head2Head clashes.
But Tsitsipas took Nadal to the brink in their thrilling match at The O2 last year, falling to the Spanish southpaw 7-5 in the third set. Nadal’s resume is one of the best in the history of the game, but the young Greek has the one big title that’s eluded the Spaniard. And so, expect a close, physical contest that will likely be decided by who plays the break points better.
In his match against Thiem, Nadal was 17-11 in rallies of nine shots or longer, but just 64-74 in rallies of nine shots or less. And so he’ll be aggressive when opportunities arise, but he’ll also be looking to extend points and make Tsitsipas suffer as much as possible.
After his match Tuesday, Nadal said he has nothing to prove to anyone, even himself, because he believes in his game.
“I really, I don’t want to pretend to be arrogant at all. Because I am not,” said Nadal. “But I really don’t need to show even to myself or to no one that if I am playing my best tennis, I think I can win in every surface and against any player, no.
It is true, [that] I never won the Nitto ATP Finals. That’s the real thing at the same time. So, no problem about that.”
No question, the man’s legacy is secure, even if he never wins another match in his life. But no one who has followed his career doubts for a moment that he’ll take the court Thursday night with anything less than his very best tennis. Coping with an in-form Nadal can be a wretched ordeal for any opponent. And so, the time for kindness is over for the young, but not-too-young Greek, who says that he hopes to provide a brave bit of hellish resistance against a legend of the game.
“At the end of the day, it’s just being brave and using your braveness through your experience,” he said.