Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 January 2020

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic set for blockbuster ATP Cup final showdown

Top two-ranked players lead Spain and Serbia into the final of the inaugural team event in Australia

Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Alex de Minaur in the ATP Cup semi-final. AFP
Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Alex de Minaur in the ATP Cup semi-final. AFP

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are set for an early season showdown after the world's top two male tennis players guided their national teams into the final of the ATP Cup on Saturday.

Spain took out tournament hosts Australia in Sydney after world No 1 Nadal ground down pumped-up Alex de Minaur to guide the Davis Cup champions through their semi-final, while Djokovic battled past Russia's Daniil Medvedev.

Under the format of the team event, the top-ranked singles players from each country play each other, ensuring the long-time rivals will clash for a 55th time since their first showdown in 2006.

World No 2 Djokovic leads the head-to-heads 28-26, including beating Nadal in the Australian Open final last year.

Nadal outlasted De Minaur 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 after unflappable teammate Roberto Bautista Agut produced a fine performance to defeat Nick Kyrgios 6-1, 6-4.

Djokovic had an equally tough time against impressive fifth-ranked Medvedev, coming through a top-draw contest 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 on the back of Dusan Lajovic beating Karen Khachanov 7-5, 7-6.

"Alex was playing at a very high level and for me my energy was a little bit lower than usual. But it has been a very emotional evening and a pleasure playing here," Nadal said.

"We know it's going to be a super tough final [against Serbia]. Novak likes a lot to play here, he's had a lot of great results. So let's see. We have a good team too."

De Minaur had a furious start, breaking Nadal in the opening game of the match and then keeping the pressure on, restricting the Spaniard's trademark forehand to take the first set in 46 minutes.

Full of energy, the Australian No 1's serve was on fire and he was winning the baseline rallies, but Nadal weathered the onslaught and finally won a break point, converting to take the second set.

It proved a pivotal moment in the match as Nadal seized the momentum to cruise through the decider, despite dropping one service game.

World No 10 Bautista Agut was in control and all over the groundstrokes of temperamental Kyrgios, who looked lost as he crashed 6-1 in the first set.

The Australian regained some lustre in the second set, but he was broken in the fifth game, mangling his racquet in frustration, and despite saving two match points with booming aces was outplayed.

"My game plan was to put him under pressure to play every point, to make him work. That's what I tried and it went well," said Bautista Agut.

Sixteen-time grand slam winner Djokovic, who is targeting an eighth Australian Open title this month, had looked on track for a comfortable win against Medvedev after sailing through the opening set and breaking in the first game of the second.

But the dogged Russian, who won their last two encounters, roared back. He broke in the next game and then again for 3-1, with Djokovic smashing his racquet as Medvedev took the set to level the match.

A third set of long, high-quality rallies went with serve until Djokovic got the crucial edge in the fifth game, converting a volley to go 3-2 in front and Medvedev had no answer.

"It was an exceptional match. Lots of rallies and very exhausting. Daniil Medvedev is one of the best players in the world and he showed today why," Djokovic said.

"He's difficult to break from the baseline, he's tall and has a good serve. This was the most difficult challenge I have had so far this year."

Lajovic, who won his first ATP title last year at Umag, took a 2-0 record into his showdown with world No 17 Khachanov and produced a performance that belied his ranking of 34.

"It was definitely one of the toughest matches for me in my career, concerning the situation, the tension and the importance of the moment," he said. "But the crowd carried me."

Updated: January 11, 2020 05:19 PM

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