Continuing our review of the 2021 season, today we look at the top two ATP Tour matches of the year, after reviewing three classics yesterday. (We’ll reveal our best Grand Slam matches of 2021 next week.)
2) Nitto ATP Finals, Round Robin, Daniil Medvedev d. Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (6)
The beginning of his career series with Alexander Zverev did not go well for Daniil Medvedev. Their first four meetings all went to the German, even though he was 14 months younger. Three years ago in Shanghai, however, Medvedev solved the perplexing riddle and going into their round-robin match at the Nitto ATP Finals, the Russian had won five of six.
And yet, Zverev came into the Turin, Italy competition having won 28 of 31 matches, including the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo and the title at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Medvedev, though, had now won six straight matches at the year-end event, going back to his 2020 title in London. He had also ruined Novak Djokovic’s run at a calendar-year Grand Slam at the last possible moment, beating him in the US Open final.
It was a match of great promise, and one that delivered on lofty expectations.
In a lively start, Medvedev played the big points better as he fended off three break points across his opening two service games and broke Zverev to soar 3-0 ahead. The Russian approached the net well throughout the first set, stepping forward to dictate in the fast condition.
The second set was an even one and with both players strong on serve, with a tie-break needed to split them. In dramatic fashion, Medvedev was punished for a second-serve foot fault at 1/1 and then briefly lost his focus as Zverev capitalised to level, before the German raised his arms to further engage the raucous crowd as he marched back to his chair.
Medvedev continued to successfully attack Zverev’s backhand in the third set as he dominated those crosscourt exchanges. But he was unable to find the crucial breakthrough on the German’s serve as the players were again locked deep into the decider.
When they arrived at a third-set tie-break after a captivating series of ebbs and flows, it looked like Zverev, the No. 3 player in the FedEx ATP Rankings, had reversed the tide against No. 2 Djokovic. He led 4/2 and had one more serve on his racquet. But Medvedev, rising to the occasion of the highest quality, won six of the last eight points and, with his second victory in group play, booked his spot in the semi-finals.
“Today’s match was a matter of a few points, was a really close match” Medvedev said later. “I’m just happy that I made it against such a strong opponent, especially this year, has so many victories, titles.”
Prophetically, he added, “I always say against a Top 10 player for years, which is Sascha, I feel like no matter how many matches you win in a row you can basically lose the same amount in a row afterwards.”
After his obligatory meeting with Zverev at net, Medvedev approached the courtside camera and, as is the victor’s custom, penned a message. “Not tight,” Medvedev wrote. “Hands are shaking.”
He was only half kidding.
Medvedev and Zverev would meet again in the championship match and there would be more great shots, from both sides. This time, however, the writing on the wall would belong to a different author.
1) Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell, Final, Rafael Nadal d. Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-7(6), 7-5
By now, Rafael Nadal’s pre-service ritual is embedded in the mind’s eye. He’s gone through that quirky routine tens of thousands of times, driving home the point that Rafa is a creature of habit. The same is true of his clay results.
Heading into the Open Banc Sabadell, Nadal had won the Barcelona event 11 times – the same total as Monte-Carlo and two fewer than his enduring record of 13 at Roland Garros. It had already been a challenging week for Nadal before he reached the final, getting extended to three sets twice before besting Cameron Norrie and Pablo Carreno Busta.
Stefanos Tstisipas, however, would prove to be a tough out. The 22-year-old Greek had actually beaten Rafa in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and won the Monte-Carlo title a week before. A Roland Garros semi-finalist in 2020, Tsitsipas had won each of the 17 sets he played on clay in 2021, good for nine straight victories.
After a thrilling, savage encounter, the only necessary piece of play-by-play: Down 4-5, 30-40, Nadal rifled a forehand up the line to save match point. He won the next three games to punctuate a 3-hour, 38-minute battle – the then-longest ATP match of the year.
At the age of 34, Nadal had secured his 12th Barcelona title and his 87th overall.
“I think I never played a final like this in this tournament, so it means a lot to me against a player like him,” Nadal said afterward. “It is an important victory for me. I think I have been increasing my level during the whole week and this victory confirms it.”
Nadal ran his record in the Barcelona finals to a spotless 12-0. The win was particularly meaningful, he said, because the 2020 tournament had been cancelled due to the worldwide pandemic.
“It’s about accepting the challenge,” Nadal said. “It is about being humble enough to accept that sometimes you are not playing that well and you need to fight for it and you need to try to find solutions every day. That’s what I did.”
Next Week: Best Grand Slam Matches Of 2021