Rafael Nadal capped another memorable year by winning the Mubadala World Tennis Championship for a record fifth time on Saturday night, edging Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7, 7-5 7-6 in an absorbing final.
Nadal, 33, warned on the eve of the tournament that he was not in the best condition after a limited off-season due to his involvement in Spain’s victorious Davis Cup campaign at the end of November. He could have fooled us, bringing his trademark intensity to the Abu Dhabi final to see off a player in sensational form following his breakthrough victory at the ATP Finals last month.
The umpire was likely the most relieved man in the stadium after an incorrect decision during the first set tiebreak denied Nadal the chance to stay alive. Trailing 3-5, Nadal should have been awarded a point after Tsitsipas incorrectly challenged, but instead the umpire demanded the point be replayed. Tsitsipas would win the subsequent point before claiming the set.
There was little protest from Nadal, perhaps due to it being an unofficial tournament, although with $250,000 (Dh918,000) awarded to the winner, these guys certainly weren’t playing for free.
The second set proved similarly close to the first, with both players unbreakable on serve, although Tsitsipas did have two break points in the ninth game that were he to convert, would have given him the chance to serve for the title.
However, the world No 6 was given a harsh reminder to never leave the door ajar for Nadal because he will only smash it down. Tsitsipas offered up a solitary break point in the 12th game and Nadal was all too prepared to take advantage, clinching the set and forcing the final into a decider.
Once again, there was little to separate these two in the third set. Nadal looked to have seized the initiative when he broke to lead 4-2, only for Tsitsipas to break back immediately. A tiebreak looked inevitable and as the match headed in that direction, the crowd became more animated, with chants in support of both players ringing around the International Tennis Centre at Zayed Sports City.
In the end, it was Nadal who held his nerve, clinching the title after Tsitsipas dumped a forehand into the net. By the time they greeted each other at the net, they had been playing for three hours and 12 minutes. If MWTC is supposed to be an exhibition tournament, someone forgot to tell Nadal and Tsitsipas.
It is a fitting end to a year Nadal himself described as “magical”. The 33-year-old Spaniard won two grand slam titles – his 12th French Open and fourth US Open – claimed the year-end top ranking, and led Spain to team glory. Not to mention, he married his long-term girlfriend Maria Francisca Perello in October.
Nadal is the most frequent competitor in MWTC history having competed in 10 of the 12 tournaments, and he said he expects to be back again next year.
“I came 10, why not 11? Honestly you never know. I’m always one year older every time, but hopefully I stay healthy and hopefully I will be back. It’s a tournament I like so much and I always have great feelings here,” he said during the trophy presentation.
“Thank you to the crowd for an amazing year, their support is always amazing. Thank you Abu Dhabi, and thank you to Mubadala – please continue your support of tennis.”
Tsitsipas may have been on the losing side in Saturday’s final, but the Greek has won plenty of new fans this week. He, too, has had a season to remember, breaking into the top 10 in the world rankings, reaching his first grand slam semi-final – at the Australian Open – and winning the biggest title of his career to date at the season-ending championship in London.
“I’ve never played an exhibition so long, or maybe even any match, so I’m happy I gave it my all out there,” Tsitispas said in his on-court interview. “We got electric support from the fans here. It’s been a great couple of days, I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m really grateful to have the opportunity [to be here].
“Congrats to Rafa, it’s a great way for him to end the year. We put on some great entertainment with high-quality tennis.”