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Why Rafael Nadal has never won the ATP Finals, and why that drought might extend into Turin

Rafael Nadal has never won the ATP Finals
Rafael Nadal has never won the ATP Finals
Mihir Gawade
ANALYST
Modified 14 Nov 2020, 23:55 IST
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Rafael Nadal has 20 Grand Slams to his name, the joint-highest in men's tennis history. He also has 35 Masters titles, five Davis Cup trophies, two Olympics gold medals (one in singles and one in doubles)...it wouldn't be a reach to say the Spaniard has won everything there is to win in tennis.

But it would be inaccurate to say that, because Rafael Nadal actually hasn't won everything. The one prize that has repeatedly eluded tennis' El Toreador is the year-ending championships or, as we know it today, the ATP Finals.

Some might argue that the ATP Finals is not absolutely necessary to lay claim to the 'GOAT' title. If Nadal were to retire today, he would still leave behind a truly special legacy that is unlikely to ever be matched by anyone.

But there's little doubt that Rafael Nadal would rather retire having won the year-end championships than not.

For context, Nadal's biggest rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have won the ATP Finals six and five times respectively. So what stops the Spaniard from lifting this trophy?

Rafael Nadal's year-end hoodoo is unfortunate, but also inevitable

Rafael Nadal has qualified for the ATP Finals a record 16 consecutive times, having been eligible to play the tournament every year since 2005. But he has reached the final of the tournament a grand total of two times in these 16 years, without winning even once.

That is quite the poor record for someone who has won one out of every three Majors (20 out of 60) he has entered in his career.

It is not like Nadal has been completely hopeless at the ATP Finals. The last three times the Spaniard reached the semifinals, he did so without losing a match in the group stage.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion has made five semifinals in total, winning two of them and losing three. And in his two finals, he has fallen to none other than Federer and Djokovic.

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Rafael Nadal has twice finished as the runner-up at the Tour Finals
Rafael Nadal has twice finished as the runner-up at the Tour Finals

But by all accounts, the 34-year-old has never been fully convincing at the tournament either. Even when he has reached the final, he has looked like a different Rafael Nadal from the player he has been in the rest of the year.

Something always looks compromised when you watch Rafael Nadal play on indoor hardcourts. Something always looks off. Only one of his 86 tour titles has come on the surface - and that was back in 2005 at Madrid.

The controlled conditions of an indoor hardcourt blunt the effect of Nadal's topspin-heavy groundstrokes. In other words, the Spaniard's biggest weapon - his forehand - is neutralized when he plays indoors.

The crosscourt forehand-to-backhand routine isn't punishing enough for the opponents on indoor hardcourts. Most top 10 players find it fairly easy to redirect pace with their backhand wing on a low-bouncing court, which in turn leaves Nadal scrambling for court position.

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The Spaniard also struggles to break serve on indoor hardcourts. The giant servers go for more with their first strike in such conditions, which puts Nadal on the backfoot right from the start.

Still, Rafael Nadal has won dozens of matches when everything else has failed, just by 'hanging in there'. The Spaniard has outlasted a lot of players simply by stretching a match long enough and turning it into a dogfight. But even that has seldom worked at the year-end championships.

One of the reasons for this could be the slot in the calendar that the tournament occupies. By November, most top players are understandably fatigued after playing a full season, sometimes with more than 80 matches under their belt. Rafael Nadal in particular has often looked out of juice at this point of the year; the energy he is known for usually dissipates by the end of the US Open.

That was most strikingly evident in 2011, when Nadal failed to make it out of round robin stage despite having reached three Major finals in the year.

Another factor that has diminished Rafael Nadal's chances at the ATP Finals is injuries. Of the 16 times that Nadal has qualified for the event, he has taken the court on only 10 occasions (including 2020). In fact, this will be the first instance since 2011 of Nadal playing the tournament in two consecutive years.

Rafael Nadal has missed the ATP Finals in 2005, 2008, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 due to some kind of fitness issue or the other. Moreover, in 2017, the Spaniard participated despite carrying an injury, and had to withdraw after his first match.

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What would have hurt Nadal more is that he missed the tournament in the years he was arguably playing his best tennis outside clay - 2008, 2017 and 2018.

The 2020 ATP Finals is unlikely to be any different for Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal qualified but didn
Rafael Nadal qualified but didn't appear at the ATP Finals on six occasions

But even with all the injuries, the fact remains that Rafael Nadal failed to win the tournament in several years when he was fully fit - 2010, 2013 and 2019. Which is why this year too, even though Nadal is fully fit, not many are considering him the favorite to lift the title.

That might sound like premature writing off of a great champion, especially since he theoretically has a 1/8 chance to win - which are pretty good odds for a tennis tournament. But the reality is that Rafael Nadal's chances of winning the 50th edition of the ATP Finals are actually lesser than his mathematical odds.

Nadal is in a group where he is not the outright favorite to finish as one of the semifinalists. Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas, the two finalists last year, have shown a much higher ceiling on indoor hardcourts in their young careers than Nadal has in more than a decade. If Thiem and Tsitsipas have fully recovered from their recent injury issues, they would be expected to finish as the top two players in 'Group London 2020'.

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Alexander Zverev ended Rafael Nadal
Alexander Zverev ended Rafael Nadal's semi-final hopes in 2019

If either of them fails, Nadal still wouldn't be guaranteed to make the semis given that Andrey Rublev - the player with the most titles in 2020 - is the fourth contender in the group.

Even if Rafael Nadal somehow does make it to the semifinals, he will likely face one of Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev or Alexander Zverev - all three of whom have superior records than Nadal on the surface.

Moreover, Nadal has in general struggled on faster courts this year. Aside from his title run in Acapulco, Nadal's overall hardcourt game has not looked up to the mark at any point in 2020.

Will Turin change Rafael Nadal's fortunes?

Keeping all of this in mind, Rafael Nadal might be hoping that the change of venue next year - from London's O2 Arena to Turin's Pala Alpitour stadium - helps turn the tide. Though the surface will remain the same and the conditions aren't expected to be much different, the new atmosphere and surroundings would at least present a fresh - and perhaps easier - set of challenges for the Spaniard.

However, looking at his history at the tournament, it seems like Rafael Nadal would need more than just a different venue to win the ATP Finals. He would also need a different game, and perhaps more importantly, a whole lot of luck, to win his maiden year-end trophy - whether it is in London or in Turin.

Published 14 Nov 2020, 22:51 IST
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