Dominic Thiem battled back from the verge of defeat to down world No.1 Novak Djokovic in a three-hour, three-set semi-final classic at the ATP Finals.
Rafael Nadal has an impressive career. The world number one tennis player has won 19 Grand Slam titles and 35 ATP Tour Masters 1000 titles.
Rafa has been the end-of-year world number one five times. He has won the Olympic Gold medal twice. He has also been on the Spain Davis Cup-winning team four times.
There is only one trophy missing from his glittering cabinet and that is the ATP Finals, featuring the top eight singles players of the season. Rafa has qualified for a record 15 years but somehow he has not been able to win the trophy due to a combination of factors, prominent among which is injury.
Let us look at the performances of Rafa in these 15 years categorising his participation/non-participation into four categories, injury/withdrawal, exit at the round-robin stage, exit at semi-final stage and defeat in the final.
Defeat in finals
Rafa has entered the finals twice and lost once each to his great rivals, Roger Federer in 2010 and Novak Djokovic in 2013.
2010 was one of his best years on the circuit, with three Grand Slam titles. He won the French Open for the fifth time in six years and the second time without losing a set.
At Wimbledon, he won both semi-finals and finals in straight sets and he won the US Open as well to become the first player to win Grand Slams on clay, grass and hard courts in the same year.
At the ATP Finals, he won all three round-robin matches for the first time, defeating Andy Roddick, Novak and Berdych. He also defeated Murray in the semi-finals but Federer stopped him in the finals winning 4-6, 6-3,6-3.
2013 is considered one of the best comeback seasons for any tennis player. Rafa won the French Open and the US Open as well amongst ten titles won in the year. Winning Montreal, Cincinnati and the US Open (all three hard-court events) in the same year is a rare feat that Rafa achieved and in these three tournaments, he defeated Federer and Novak (twice).
At the ATP Finals, as in 2013, he won his three round-robin matches defeating David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka, and Tom Berdych. He then defeated Federer in straight sets in the semi-finals. However, Novak defeated him in straight sets, winning his third year-end championships, denying Rafa his first.
There were three such instances.
In 2006, the second year of qualifying for the year end-event, Rafa did not have a strong second half of the year, something seen quite often in his illustrious career.
He defeated Nikolay Davydenko and Tommy Robredo but lost to James Blake at the round-robin stage. Federer stopped him in the semi-finals.
2007 was a repeat of 2006. Rafa won two of the three matches in the Round-robin stage. He defeated Richard Gasquet first and then lost surprisingly to Ferrer before recovering to defeat Novak in the third match to make it to the semi-finals.
However as in the previous year, Federer stopped him in straight sets. Coincidentally too, in both 2006 and 2007, Federer had defeated him in the finals at Wimbledon.
2015 was one of the worst years of Rafa’s career. He entered only the Quarter-finals of the Australian and French Open’s while US Open and Wimbledon saw a third round and second round exit.
At the ATP Finals though, he won all his three matches at the Round-robin stage , against tough opponents Wawrinka, Murray and Ferrer.
To his bad luck, Novak awaited in the semi-finals to defeat him in straight sets. 2015 was amongst Novak’s best years against Rafa in which he won all their four matches.
Their head to head was 19-23 at the beginning of the year and for the first time, Novak equalled it at 23-23.
Exit at round-robin stage
There are three such years. Details are as follows
2009 was the year in which Rafa won his only Australian Open title with epic wins over Fernando Verdasco in the semi-finals and Roger Federer in the finals.
However, overall he did not have a good year. A shock fourth round defeat to Robin Soderling at the French Open allowed Federer his only chance to win at Roland Garros, which Federer promptly seized.
At the ATP finals, Rafa had a poor tournament, losing all his three matches to Soderling, Davydenko and Novak.
In 2011, Rafa won the French Open and reached the finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open, losing both to Novak. At the ATP Finals, he defeated Mardy Fish in three sets but lost to Tsonga in three and lost to Federer in a one-sided match to exit at the round-robin stage.
The recent 2019 ATP finals were the third time Rafa exited at the round-robin stage and this was cruel since out of five players winning two matches, only four could advance to the semi-finals, and it was Rafa who lost out. Rafa lost to Zverev, came back from the brink to defeat Medvedev and defeated ultimate winner Tsitsipas in a thriller.
Injuries and withdrawals
There were as many as seven years in which Rafa could not participate or did participate, only to withdraw in the middle of the tournament. These were 2005, 2008, 2012, 2014 and then three straight years from 2016-2018.
This then is the history of Rafa Nadal at the ATP Finals. In his 15 years here, there were seven in which he had injuries. In the remaining eight, he exited at the round-robin stage in three years, entered semi-finals in three, and the finals in two.
If semifinal/final can be seen as a serious chance to win, then it is interesting that at this stage, all the five times he was stopped by his great rivals Federer and Novak.
One thing is certain. Not winning the ATP finals does not make any difference to the great champion. However he would like to win this prestigious tournament at least once.
He will certainly be back at O2, London in 2020, the last time this tournament is held here before it moves to Turin, Italy.