Daniil Medvedev fought back from a set and a break down to earn a first win over Rafael Nadal and book his spot in the final of the ATP Finals, where he will face Dominic Thiem.
Medvedev, the long-limbed world No. 4 from Russia, had lost his first three meetings with the 20-time Grand Slam champion and looked on course for a fourth with Nadal serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set.
But the 24-year-old, who failed to beat Nadal from 5-1 up in the deciding set here last year, broke to love and completed a glorious fightback, winning 3-6 7-6 (7-5) 6-3 in two hours and 36 minutes.
The result brought an end to one of the longest current streaks in tennis, with Nadal losing a match after winning the first set for the first time since February 2019. He had won all 71 matches from that position since a loss to Nick Kyrgios in Acapulco.
But Medvedev, who won the final Masters 1000 event of the season in Paris-Bercy, has proven himself to be a wily competitor and remains the only unbeaten player at this year’s tournament after coming through a night of tactical warfare in an empty O2 Arena.
Regardless of the result on Sunday evening, this event will have a new champion and the sixth different winner in six final years at the O2 before a move to Turin.
Thiem – who beat Djokovic earlier on Saturday – is into his second final, having lost in a deciding set tiebreak to Stefanos Tsitsipas last year.
The pair have met once this year, with Thiem winning a semi-final clash at the US Open in three tight sets on his way to winning a first major title.
But Medvedev will have a chance to earn revenge in his final match of the season after a heroic win over Nadal.
Nadal was forced to dig deep first. In the third game of the match, Medvedev – whose ability to guide the ball into awkward positions on the stretch never fails to astound – had three chances to break that were saved by the world No. 2 from Spain, two of which were unreturned serves.
It was Nadal who was doing most of the leg work. After six games, the average length of his service games was five minutes longer than Medvedev’s.
Medvedev, who lost all his matches on his debut here a year ago, had made his first 16 serves but out of nowhere Nadal pounced and broke to love as the Russian sent a forehand long. After 47 minutes, he had a one-set lead.
The world No. 2 from Spain rarely loses after losing the first set. Indeed, he had won all 24 matches when winning the opener this season.
But Medvedev responded well, breaking at the start of the second set courtesy of a double fault from the other side of the net as he raced into a 3-0 lead.
Nadal was forced to survive another break point in the sixth game of the second set and it proved costly for Medvedev.
After almost moving 5-1 up with a double break in the previous game, Nadal struck back and was soon level at 4-4.
He reeled off his fifth game in a row to serve for the match but was broken to love in a shock twist of fate.
Medvedev was soon level. A remarkably fortuitous shank cruelly lobbed Nadal to put the Russian in total control at 5-3 and he made no mistake in seeing it out.
Nadal held firm under more pressure from Medvedev at the start of the decider, saving a break point.
In the seventh game, he found an ace down the T to save a second break point and then a one-two punch to deny Medvedev a third time in the third set.
But he couldn’t deny him a fourth time and Medvedev smashed home as he broke and went on to seal a stunning victory.
It was a painful defeat for Britain’s Joe Salisbury earlier in the doubles.
He and American partner Rajeev Ram were beaten 6-7 (4-7) 6-3 11-9 by Jurgen Melzer and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.
The Anglo-American pair had match point in the match tiebreak – which they led 7-1 – had they converted it they would have finished the season as the top-ranked doubles pairing.
Reflecting on his season, Australian Open champion Salisbury said: ‘Obviously it was a great start. Since we started again we haven’t done badly, I think. But I also don’t feel like we have done that well either, because I think we lost a couple close matches in Grand Slams which I thought we could have won.
‘The end of the season was tough. To be honest I think we did quite well to get to the semi-final here, because I don’t think we played very well.
‘Obviously it’s tough losing that, but I don’t really feel like we deserved to be in the final how we have played this week. I mean, we have come through a couple of tiebreaks, but I don’t think our level has been that good.
‘We still should have won that match, but, yeah, we can definitely play a lot better.’
Mate Pavic and Bruno Soares – who will reunite with Britain’s Jamie Murray next season – will end the year at the top of the leaderboard.
Melzer – who will retire after Sunday’s final – and Roger-Vasselin will face Nikola Mektic and Wesley Koolhof.
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