“If you had to pick a player to win a match for your life, who would you choose?”
It is a quixotic conundrum occasionally spun out to tennis pundits, but when pressed the majority rarely hesitate in opting for Rafael Nadal.
That prompts the follow-up: Why the Mallorcan, why not Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer?
Those in favour of Rafa say it is simply because he is the sports’s ultimate fighter.
That part, at least, is not a notion that requires much debate. Few players can match Rafa’s combination of mental and physical intensity for point after point and hour after hour. The world number two is a master of elevating his level when faced by adversity. His one point-at-a-time approach and never-say-die attitude have seen him wrestle the momentum his way in the defining moments of matches on countless occasions over the past few decades.
Tennis Legends: Why hasn't Rafael Nadal won the ATP Finals?
That’s one of the reasons why Dominic Thiem’s victory over the Spaniard on Tuesday was so strikingly impressive. Thiem went toe-to-toe with the 20-time Grand Slam champion, out-Rafa-ing, Rafa in the key points in an extraordinarily high-class encounter.
Nadal may have had his nose bloodied by such a narrow defeat, but like all great fighters he is eager to spring off the ropes and avoid a knockout blow by landing one of his own.
Beware the wounded bull and that could be bad news for defending champion, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The Greek, who has this week been insisting he should no longer be referred to as a kid, will need to bring one of his most mature and fully focused performances to the court if he is to stay in the hunt for back-to-back titles at this event.
Thiem described the level of tennis he produced in his win over Nadal as up there with the best of his career. It would seem likely Tsitsipas may need a similar display if he is to prevail in their winner-takes-all round robin clash, particularly if Nadal hits the heights he did against the Austrian.
Rafael Nadal delighted with 'perfect start' at ATP Finals
Tsitsipas has a 1-5 record v the No.2 seed and arrived in London with doubts over his fitness following a leg injury, so the odds may be leaning towards the Spaniard, who also beat the 22-year-old at this stage of this event last year.
For Nadal, the win or bust scenario could extend to a bigger picture beyond this week. At the age of 34, time is working against the two-time finalist if he is to finally win this tournament on his 10th appearance here.
So, let’s return to our opening gambit with an adjunct; would you bet your life on Rafa winning - on indoor hard? Now, surely that’s a much tougher call to make, isn’t it?
His indoor record (93-40) has come under much scrutiny and he is certainly more vulnerable on this surface, where big serves and hard-hitting ground strokes are more effective than his favoured spin-game.
He has won just one individual hard court title in his illustrious career, way back in 2005 before the Madrid Masters switched to clay. However, Nadal has generally only sought to play regular indoor events at the Paris Masters and the ATP finals. His injury-prone body is often exhausted or out of action by the time these events come around at the latter stages of his gruelling calendar. He has qualified for these finals 16 times but this is only his 10th appearance, while in the same period of time he has only turned out at Paris-Bercy on eight occasions.
It’s also worth noting that since Carlos Moya came on board as a coach ahead of the 2017 season, they have made adjustments that have increased Nadal’s chances in this type of environment.
“The great improvement I think was with the second serve,” explained Moya in an interview with Marca.
Normally, he always tried to put a lot of firsts in at the percentage level due to the weakness of the second service. The point began by defending. I tried to get him to go for the point, to change the rhythm of the plays, to make the points shorter.
Just last November, Nadal spearheaded Spain to Davis Cup glory on an indoor hard court and ended the year with an impressive 11-1 record on the surface. His serving since 2019 has almost been akin to that of 2010, which he once described as an ‘out of this world’ serve that propelled him to his first US Open title and a career Grand Slam.
It may well be that the O2 conditions favour other players in the field this week, but it is hard to rule out a fresh Nadal with a point to prove.
“I think my chances are bigger to have a very good result now than five days ago because the level of tennis, even if I lost, for me is much higher,” he said following his match with Thiem.
Knocking out reigning champion, Tsitsipas would further ignite his belief and lay down a marker going into the business end of the competition. It could be the first of a quick-fire succession of heavyweight battles, or further confirmation of his hoodoo here - but one thing is for sure: If Nadal’s light at this event is to once again be prematurely extinguished, he’ll certainly go down fighting with all that he’s worth.
Now, that’s something you probably could bet your life on.