November 16, 2020
Rafael Nadal isn’t just here to make up the numbers this time around.
He wants to achieve something new in London and he senses his chance.
Wimbledon 2021 is still a few months away. For now Rafa has a more immediate challenge in mind.
The Spaniard has never won the ATP Tour Finals. In fact only one of his 86 titles have come on hard courts indoors.
But there is something about Nadal’s intensity and appetite at the O2 that is already making people sit up and take notice.
He didn’t face a single break point during his emphatic 6-3, 6-4 victory over Andrey Rublev.
And remember, the Russian may be a new-boy at this event but he has also won five titles this year and prevailed in as many matches as anyone.
Nadal didn’t give him a chance. Serving at an average of 121 mph, he established a superb foundation.
Forehands down the line flew like bullets and put Rublev on the back foot.
Rafa has quickly sent out a signal to his rivals in London. The man means business.
He said later: ‘Every match is difficult but this is a positive start from me and I’m very happy.
‘Rublev has had an amazing season and I wish him all the best for the rest of the week.
‘I converted my chances and I’m very pleased. But I have a super-difficult match against Dominic next.’
That showdown with Thiem on Tuesday afternoon should be a cracker.
Ordinarily at this time of year you might make the younger man the favourite indoors.
But Nadal is in the better form of the two protagonists, judging by their respective opening matches at the O2.
Beware Rafa when he talks about making tweaks to his game. Now look what he has done.
Nadal has turned himself into a high-performance mean machine at a time of year when he usually looks jaded.
Remember Rome, when people dared to write him off for the French Open, because he was serving so badly?
Nadal acknowledged back then: ‘Losing that many service games, it’s something I have to fix. I know how to do it. I’m going to keep working and keep practising with the right attitude.’
We all know what happened next. He promptly went out and won Roland Garros. A pretty good repair job, then.
Before London, after defeat indoors in Paris, Nadal also took time to analyse his game.
‘I need to adjust a couple of things, but I’m doing well on all the important things,’ he observed.
Another tweak of the engine and he is already purring in these ATP Tour Finals.
Sure, this event is not the same without Roger Federer, Andy Murray and a crowd.
We’ll have to wait for Wimbledon 2021 to enjoy all those delicious elements.
But Nadal is making this tournament intriguing already.
Novak Djokovic and the energetic Thiem will still pose a formidable threat, of course.
But don’t rule Rafa out. People have done that before. It rarely ends well for the critics.