He high-fived Tsitsipas right back Sunday, first beaming on the sidelines as the young Greek took his speechifying turn before an adoring audience, especially the flag-waving Hellenic contingent. “I had the week of my life. The support I got this week, I never received such a warm welcome from people during competition, so thank you for that.”
Nadal, his turn to speak, gestured toward the defeated: “Keep going. You have an amazing future.”
Then, some 90 minutes later, at the (exceedingly) post-match news conference, he extolled his shiny trinket opponent. “He has a very complete game. Big serve. Great shots from the baseline. He’s brave. He’s young. He has everything. If he’s able to keep improving, he will be fighting for the most important titles for the world of tennis immediately.”
Someday, likely sooner than later, he’ll have a first Masters title too. Thus far, he’s only had one ATP tour final, the Barcelona Open in April, where, overawed, he glug-glug-glug sank , 6-2, 6-1, to … Nadal.
It looked yesterday that this might be a reprise of that as the first set raced by with hardly a peep from the youthful challenger, broken early and broken again, utterly unable to blunt Nadal’s forehand to his backhand. Indeed, through to the fourth game of the second set Tsitsipas had only one point won off Nadal’s serve.
Then, in the eighth game, with Tsitsipas serving to stay in the match at 30-15, someone in the crowd yelled during his serving motion. The kid asked for a let. The chair umpire declined, saying he could do nothing beyond warning spectators to be quiet. But gentleman Rafa stepped forward, generously allowing Tsitsipas the first-serve do-over. That ultimately resulted in a 5-3 hold for Tsitsipas as Nadal’s return sailed long.
And, because no good deed goes unpunished, Nadal found himself on the end of a break point in the next game, coupled with a pair of double-faults, suddenly 5-5. An abrupt momentum swing, though Nadal professed no regret over his generosity.
“No, no. That’s what I felt at that moment,” he said, adding with a grin: “Maybe I was too nice in that moment.”
It was just one point, as Nadal emphasized. “And I lost, and then he served a huge first serve and win the game, and then I played a horrible game. But what happened in that point don’t have any impact about the game in the 5-4. I get nervous, I am completely human person. I get nervous and I miss it.
“After that, I accept the situation. Just fight back and try to stay positive. That’s what I did.”
Perhaps he was just a bit blinded by all that daylight. All of Nadal’s previous four matches had come late in the evening sessions this week, often delayed by rain. His two-set semifinal dispatch of Russian Karen Khachanov on Saturday actually came to pass a few minutes into Sunday morning. So they were both tired.
Tsitsipas had also started to figure out some things about Nadal’s first serve, was responding better to high bounces. Asked what was going through his head in that break game, Tsitsipas pointed out: “I believe not so much in my head. I believe in mostly his head. He got tighter and he didn’t put any first serve in. He always started the point with a second serve. And I just used it and took control of the point and that’s how I broke him.”
But Nadal has been here so many times. Hold and hold and they were into a tiebreak. Tsitsipas had fared pretty well in tiebreaks, especially coming back against South African Kevin Anderson in their semi.
Except Nadal buckled down on a furious rally exchange, executed a tough drop shot and, at 5-4, induced a netter from his opponent. Abruptly over.
Tsitsipas was reminded by a reporter of a year ago, in Montreal, when the gobsmacker of Rogers Cup week was Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov, who didn’t make it out of the third round here. He’d never envisioned himself taking it even further on the cusp of 20.
“It inspired me so much, I was dreaming of this place,” said Tsitsipas, who’d watched the tournament on TV, in Portoroz, Slovenia. “It was so inspirational to see him beat those guys. It seemed completely out of my world what he was doing on the court.”