Nadal rattled, but Spain dumps Aussies
Rafa Nadal's Spain will face Novak Djokovic's Serbia in Sunday's ATP Cup final after Alex de Minaur couldn't keep local hopes alive at the Ken Rosewall Arena.
In the end, world No.1 Nadal had too much firepower for Australia's courageous 20-year-old, winning in three sets, 4-6 7-5 6-1, after Nick Kyrgios had lost the opening singles tie in the best-of-three encounter to leave De Minaur facing death or glory.
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De Minaur had Nadal well and truly rattled early on, winning the first set, but ultimately he ran out of gas in a three-set thriller.
De Minaur had the crowd on its feet from the off, breaking the 19-time grand slam champion in the opening game of the match, and he stormed through the first set.
"I know I've got this level. I mean, I'm showing it," de Minaur said after the loss.
"It's time for me to get in that mindset more often, in the mindset where I'm believing that I can take it to anyone.
"In that match, that's how I felt. I felt like I was playing my game and I was doing it my way. Didn't matter what was happening. I was going to commit to my game plan and keep going for my shots and keep backing myself."
Nadal came dangerously close to suffering back-to-back losses for the first time in his 206 weeks as world No.1, having been shocked 6-4 7-6 in his singles loss to Belgium's David Goffin in the quarter-finals on Friday night.
Nadal criticised the ATP Cup schedule format in the lead-up to Saturday night's sudden-death tie.
"It is fair to say that we are in the worst position to play the final eight because we came from Perth," Nadal said after Spain's 1.10am victory over Belgium on Friday night.
"That's these three hours' time changing, different weather conditions, playing against a team that have been here for the last 10 days, and we are the only team coming from Perth and playing until the last day of Perth and arriving here during the evening with jet lag."
BAD BOY KRYGIOS RETURNS
Kyrgios showed glimpses of his former bad boy self as shouted at the Australian bench and smashed a racquet in the straight-sets loss to Bautista Agut.
It was never going to end well.
The Australian was a shadow of the player who had racked up a 3-0 singles record and a decisive doubles win during the tournament.
Roberto Bautista Agut derailed Kyrgios steam train at the ATP Cup with a 6-1 6-4 victory.
Almost 10,000 fans watched on as the flawless Spaniard snatched the first set from Kyrgios in just 30 minutes, with the temperamental Australian momentarily losing his cool and smashing his racquet into the ground at a change of ends.
The world No.29 briefly threatened a comeback in the second set after a pep talk from Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt, but Kyrgios failed to convert opportunities into points.
Bautista Agut won 80 per cent of his first-serve points and gave away just six unforced errors throughout the one hour and 20 minute meeting.
Kyrgios ended on 27 unforced errors and just 24 winners.
The Australian did manage to clock up 13 aces and has now served 72 aces across the whole ATP Cup - the most of any player in the tournament.
Afterwards, a modest Bautista Agut said he was proud to get Spain off to the perfect start.
"Everybody knows how difficult it is to play against Nick he's such a great player and a great talent, to beat him in straight sets is because I did a really great job, I played a really good match and I was very solid," he said.
"My game plan today was trying to make him under pressure, to play every point, to make him work during whole match, that's what I tried."
In the dead rubber doubles match, Australia rested Kyrgios and de Minaur as Pablo Carreno Busta and Feliciano Lopez secured a 3-0 tie victory for Spain.
Carreno Busta and Lopez saved all four break points they faced to beat John Peers and Chris Guccione 6-2 6-7(6) 10-4.
It's one of the most storied rivalries in men's tennis but all won't be as it seems when Novak Djokovic takes on Rafael Nadal in the ATP Cup decider on Sunday night.
Serbia and Spain make worthy finalists for the inaugural teams competition and the world No.1 and No.2 may well be clashing for the first and only time in the harbour city.
Ostensibly the pair are hard to split, with Djokovic holding a 28-26 career record against the Spaniard.
But on hard courts the fissure between them becomes an almighty crack. Nadal hasn't beaten Djokovic on the faster surface in almost six-and-a-half years, the Serb also winning nine of their last 12 encounters overall. After a straightforward enough start to the tournament, Nadal has looked very human in the quarter and semi-finals, losing to David Goffin and on the cusp of getting beaten by Alex de Minaur.
Nadal largely deflected a question about his hard-court record against Djokovic but admitted he'd have to lift.
"I think I finished with positive energy (on Saturday)," Nadal said. "I know I have to be ready to play at my highest level to have my chance (on Sunday). I need something else, and I'm looking for it." Enjoying a 5-0 singles run at the ATP Cup, 16-time grand slam champion Djokovic has looked in the kind of form that could net him a record eighth Australian Open title.
It hasn't all been straightforward. He was pushed to a third set tiebreak by Canadian Denis Shapovalov and Russian Daniil Medvedev also took him to three sets in a high-quality semi-final.
The 16-time grand slam champion said he was taking a lot of energy from his matches in Sydney.
"It's the beginning of the season, and I'm not the only player that feels and talks this way, but I'm very motivated. I'm inspired to play my best tennis," he said.
"For different reasons the conditions (in Australia) are suitable to my style of the game, and Melbourne Park, especially." The second singles match of the tie will pit Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut against Dusan Lajovic.
Bautista Agut has been one of the standouts of the ATP Cup, the world No.10 demolishing Nick Kyrgios in the semi-final as part of a 5-0, ten consecutive set singles run.
A Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2019, he is 3-0 in career meetings with Lajovic who is 4-1 in singles for the tournament.
Doubles selection will likely come down to how the tie plays out, perhaps the ultimate result seeing the singles split so Nadal and Djokovic face off one more time for the road in Sydney.