With the 2020 ATP Finals underway, many Rafael Nadal fans will have their fingers tightly crossed. They are hoping this is the year he picks up his first title at the year-ending championship. Considered the most important tournament besides the Grand Slams, the ATP Finals is also the biggest title to elude Nadal. The main reason for this is that the ATP Finals have been played on an indoor hard court throughout Nadal’s career, where the ball bounces far lower than on other surfaces.
That tempers the effects of the normally vicious topspin he imparts on every forehand and it becomes clearer how this has hindered Nadal if one examines his win rate indoors. His career record at Tour-level (which excludes Challengers, qualifying, walkovers, the Laver Cup and Davis Cup ties played outside the World Group) stands at 76-33, giving him a winning percentage of 69.7%. At first glance that looks respectable, after all, he has only lost seven more matches on his preferred clay.
However, he has won a staggering 369 more matches (445-40) on the terre battue. And, whilst he has won 60 clay-court titles, he has claimed only two titles on indoor hard courts so far in his career; at the 2005 Madrid Masters and as part of the Spanish team at the Davis Cup Finals in 2019. That meagre total of two titles on indoor hard courts is no coincidence. Rather, it is largely explained by his 21-22 win-loss record against top 10 opponents on indoor hard courts.
If Nadal is winning less than 50% of the time against top 10 players indoors, then it is hardly surprising that Nadal has struggled in the latter stages of indoor hard-court tournaments. That is particularly true of the ATP Finals, where every opponent the Spaniard is likely to face is ranked inside the top 10. To make matters worse for Nadal, his win rate of 48.8% slumps to 25% against his great rivals Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
The pair hold a 4-2 and 5-1 record against Nadal respectively on indoor hard courts and, on all five occasions that Nadal has made it through to the semifinals or final at the season-ending championships, he has ultimately been beaten by either Federer or Djokovic. Fortunately for Nadal, Federer is not participating in London this year as he recovers from knee surgery. Djokovic, however, is waiting in the other half of the draw, although they cannot now meet until the final.
If they were to meet in the final, Nadal would likely not head into the match with much confidence, with Djokovic having won the last 19 sets he has played against Nadal on both indoor and outdoor hard courts. In short, he has more than had the measure of the Spaniard on any hard court in recent years. As a result, Nadal fans may well be hoping that Djokovic falls in the round-robin stage as he did last year. Unfortunately, he is not the only danger to Nadal’s hopes.
One could be forgiven for overlooking the threat posed by Alexander Zverev, with the young German trailing 2-5 in their head-to-head. However, Zverev’s two wins came on indoor hard courts: last week at the Paris Masters in the semifinals and at last year’s edition of the ATP Finals. Nadal failed to win a set in either match.
Despite these apparently gloomy stats, the King of Clay is by no means a slouch on an indoor hard court. His 69.7% winning percentage indoors may pale in comparison to his clay-court winning percentage of 91.8%, but it still ranks as the ninth best of his era, behind Federer, Andy Murray, Djokovic, Robin Soderling, David Nalbandian, Andy Roddick, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Those are some esteemed names.
Moreover, from 2005 onwards, he has consistently made it to the later stages of indoor hard court tournaments. For example, he has never been knocked out of the Paris Masters or the Madrid Masters, which was played on indoor hard courts until 2009, before the quarterfinals. That contributes to his impressive 55-11 win-loss record against players ranked outside the top 10 (83% win rate). He may have struggled against the giants of the game, but Nadal certainly knows how to win indoors.
And, the rest of the line-up should provide some encouragement for Nadal. Last year, he bested the defending ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas, Paris Masters winner Daniil Medvedev and in-form Diego Schwartzman on indoor hard courts, and he has dominant head-to-head records against all three. He has beaten Tsitsipas five times in six meetings, Medvedev three times without reply and Schwartzman in 10 of their 11 meetings, although the Argentine has now been eliminated.
Nadal will be hoping to extend his advantage against the Greek when he faces Tsitsipas on Thursday for a spot in the semifinals, with the Spaniard sure to draw confidence from his previous dominance of the world #6. Nadal earned his chance at this semifinal play-off after beating Andrey Rublev in his first match, before missing out on the chance to top the group after losing to Dominic Thiem 6-7 6-7 in his second round-robin match.
But will Nadal get the better of the Greek? His 48.4% win rate against top 10 opponents suggests that he could lose to Tsitsipas and indeed any potential opponent in the semifinals or final, should he get that far. In essence, a run to the title is statistically unlikely for him. But he does have wins over more than one of his competitors in indoor conditions and it would surely be naïve to completely count Nadal out of the running as a result.
His path to the title may well be narrow, particularly because even if he can scrape his way past Tsitsipas he can no longer hope to avoid both Djokovic and Zverev, as well as Thiem who has already beaten him this week. But the great Spaniard has upset the odds more than once in the past.
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