Commentary

Nadal a win away from top ranking

After seven months away from the game, Spaniard on the cusp of historic feat

Updated: November 5, 2013, 8:53 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

What a glorious day for tennis.

Day 2 of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals featured, for only the second time, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Those guys are your year-end No. 1s each season for the past decade now. And they have won a shimmering total of 36 Grand Slam singles titles.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Yunus Kaymaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal is one win away from reclaiming the top ranking for the first time since 2011.
For a tantalizing moment Tuesday, it looked like Federer was channeling one of his six triumphant runs at the year's final tournament, but in the end Djokovic outlasted him in three sets, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-2 in 2 hours, 21 minutes.

In a larger context, it's likely Nadal will be this year's No. 1 after his routine 6-3, 6-2 victory over fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. It was the fewest games Rafa has lost in a year-end match. It took only 74 minutes and did not vaguely resemble Ferrer's straight-sets victory over Nadal three days earlier in the Paris Masters semifinal.

If Nadal beats Stanislas Wawrinka in Wednesday's day session at the O2 Arena, he will clinch the No. 1 year-end ranking for the third time in his career. Failing that, he can still do it with a round-robin victory over Tomas Berdych.

And this would be an historic score for the 27-year-old who missed seven months of action with a knee injury before returning back in February. Nadal would be only the third player since current ATP ranking system was introduced in 1973 to lose his year-end top ranking and reclaim it. Ivan Lendl was No. 1 in 1987, lost it to Mats Wilander the following year, then finished No. 1 in 1989. Likewise, Federer was No. 1 in 2007, saw Nadal take his crown a year later, then took it back in 2009.

Nadal would be the first player to recapture the year-end No.1 ranking three years after the fact, which says a lot about his determination and resiliency.

Maybe that's why he looked a bit tentative at the beginning of the match. By the time they reached critical mass late in the first set, though, the No. 1-seeded Nadal hit a gorgeous running forehand that somehow got through No. 3 Ferrer, who was covering the line in decent position at the net.

So what changed in three days? Nothing, according to Nadal.

"But probably, yeah, he arrived a little bit more tired after playing the [Paris] final," he said of Ferrer. "Not a lot of time to adapt. Court is a little bit slower. I played with a little bit more calm than other day."

Ferrer, normally a bulldog bristling with energy, was understandably depleted; this is his seventh tournament in seven weeks. He has won 15 of 22 matches in that time in both Asia and Europe, but it seemed to be a factor Tuesday. Nadal converted six of seven break points.

"I don't know if one top-10 [player] played seven weeks forward," Ferrer said afterward. "Well, is not excuse. I am tired. But Rafael is also tired, and Djokovic. You know, we are here because we played a lot of matches. And, of course, we are tired.

"Today my feeling was not good, and nothing else."

Nadal has now beaten Ferrer in 21 of their 26 meetings and owns a 2013 record of 72-6.

It was an encouraging performance for Rafa, who by his own admission has not performed well at the year-end event. His best effort was losing in the 2010 finals to Federer, but with the No. 1 ranking all but secure, Nadal can focus on winning the one major tournament that has thus far eluded him.

In his best seasons, Nadal himself has arrived at the year-end event tired and off his game. The indoor surface is not his favorite, either, because his lethal topspin doesn't bite and carom out of players' strike zones.

"I feel like I am unlucky. During these nine years the Masters Cup was on indoor, a surface that was not the best for me," he said before the tournament. "So probably for me I was a little bit unlucky in this because in the past we had the Masters Cup on other surfaces.

"I understand, but I think this is unfair."

Nevertheless, he can lock down the No. 1 with a win against Wawrinka, who has been playing the best tennis of his life.

"I need to play my best, Rafa said, sounding like a conservative NFL head coach. "Surfaces that are favorable for them, or a little bit less positive for me. So if I not play my best, will be very tough to have another victory."

Don't bet on it.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesRoger Federer gave Novak Djokovic everything he could handle, but the Serb won his 18th straight match.
Djokovic outlasts Federer

There was a moment when Roger Federer -- the six-time year-end champion -- seemed on the verge of summoning another slice of his past excellence. That was when he erased a 40-love lead on Novak Djokovic's service and scored a surprising break of serve in the fifth game of the second set.

But in recent years the 32-year-old Federer has lacked the ability to close in big matches and, here it happened again, with Djokovic breaking right back. And then a funny thing happened, the No. 6-seeded Federer happened, actually, and broke No. 2 Djokovic for the second time in a row. He disappeared in the second-set tiebreaker with some vintage Federer, serving brilliantly and knocking off a dazzling backhand volley at net.

The sellout crowd of 17,000 was ecstatic it was getting a three-set match, but Federer did not age well in that final frame. He was broken in the very first game and ultimately went down 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-2.

"It was probably the toughest start I could get for this tournament," Djokovic said in his postmatch press conference. "Especially considering the scheduling that I had, playing two days ago in Paris Bercy finals, then playing Federer here, where he had a terrific record in the past.

"Of course, Roger was fighting through. The second set was very close. I was not satisfied with my serve. I basically played with no serve, no first serves the whole second set. But when I needed to in the third, I served well."

It was the 18th consecutive victory for the defending champion, who weathered a few awkward moments when he seemed to lose his balance. At one point he appeared to gesture to his team that he was disoriented, something he also did in Shanghai.

Djokovic will have difficulty finishing as the No. 1-ranked player for the third year in a row, but he's doing everything he can on his end. Federer now leads the head-to-head by a tenuous 16-15.

"I thought I had a chance today," Federer said. "So that's the part where I'm unhappy about, that I wasn't able to take advantage of it. Because I was actually feeling much better than I was in Paris overall physically.

"Obviously it's been a tough season overall. So I guess I'm just rattled at times, you know, with my level of play consistently. So I regret not having taken my chances better maybe, maybe played it a bit tougher, a little bit more solid overall."

Bryans stumble early

They are having the best season of their careers -- which is saying something -- but the top-seeded doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan fell into an early hole in London, losing their first match to No. 3 Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo, 3-6, 6-3, 10-8.

Less than a week ago, the 35-year-old California twins beat the same team in straight sets in the Paris Indoor semifinals.

The No. 2 seeded-team of Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares -- who lost to the Bryans in the Paris final -- fell to the No. 7 team of Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek, 6-3, 5-7, 10-8.

The Bryans have some work to do in the rest of round-robin action if they would like to add to their record total of 93 titles. For the record, they have played 20 tournaments this year, winning 11 titles and reaching 14 finals.

Standings through Day 2

Note: Players in each group will meet once each to determine the four semifinalists.

Group A
(7) Stanislas Wawrinka 1-0
(1) Rafael Nadal 1-0
(3) David Ferrer 0-1
(5) Tomas Berych 0-1

Group B
(4) Juan Martin del Potro 1-0
(2) Novak Djokovic 1-0
(6) Roger Federer 0-1
(8) Richard Gasquet 0-1

Forward spin: Day 3

The match of the day gets off just after 9 a.m. ET, with Rafael Nadal trying to clinch the No. 1 year-end ranking against Stanislas Wawrinka.

Nadal, it's worth noting, has beaten Wawrinka in each of their 11 previous matches -- including all three this year, in straight sets. The Swiss player has closed the season in style, posting a career-best semifinals appearance at the US Open.

The late match will be tinged with desperation; both No. 3 David Ferrer and No. 5 Tomas Berdych lost their first matches in London. The loser will almost certainly be sent home before the semifinals.

Likewise, the doubles card features two unbeaten teams -- No. 6 David Marrero and Fernando Verdasco against No. 7 Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek -- and a battle of 0-1 squads, No. 2 Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares versus the No. 4-seeded defending champions, Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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