In his quest for his first ATP Finals title, Rafael Nadal faced a test Sunday in his opening match against Andrey Rublev on the opening night of the year-end tournament at the O2 Arena in London.
Nadal, second in the ATP rankings behind Novak Djokovic, swept the eighth-ranked Rublev in two sets (6-3, 6-4) in the first of three group matches ahead of the semifinals. He is now on a 70-match win streak when he wins the opening set.
The Spaniard took the first set behind strong serving. He won 81 percent of first serves and 80 percent of second serves in the first set and had missed just one first serve through the opening five games. Rublev had just three of 12 first serves.
With a pair of break chances in the sixth game, Nadal secured the latter to move to 4-2 and prompted Rublev to throw his racket to the ground. He followed that up an angled, highlight-reel win on the return.
On the first game of the second set, Rublev tried to battle back from a 15-40 deficit after missing a tough volley and a pair of faults. After erasing two break points, he sent a shot into the net and gave Nadal the advantage early. The Russian finally got on the board in the third game, when he broke away from 15-all with three straight aces to make it 2-1.
After Rublev committed a pair of errors on his forehand to give Nadal the sixth game, he held on while he was in danger of being eliminated with some strong serving. However, he surrendered the second set to Nadal, who completed the sweep in just 77 minutes.
The Russian achieved his career-best rank with a 40-8 record this season, which included a tour-best five titles in Doha, Adelaide, Hamburg, St. Petersburg and Vienna. The 23-year-old, appearing in his first ATP Finals, has held his own when facing the sport's best, with a 3-3 record against top-10 players, including wins over Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who are also in Group London 2020 alongside him and Nadal.
"Of course, I am feeling nervous," Rublev told Dave Seminara of ATPTour.com. "It is my first time. You are with all the best players here and of course, you feel nervous. This is a normal thing because we are all humans. ... This is the moment we are playing for and we are working for."
In their lone previous meeting, Nadal defeated Rublev in three sets at the 2017 U.S. Open.
"We can find excuses or reasons, but at the end of the day, the numbers are the numbers," Nadal said. "I think I played less indoors than on the other surfaces, without a doubt. ... The indoor surfaces have not been the ideal surfaces for my tennis game since the beginning of my career."
Nadal will continue through the group stage in his quest to improve his career history at the ATP Finals, where he has qualified for a record 16 straight seasons, with matches against Thiem and Tsitsipas. Thiem defeated Tsitsipas earlier Sunday in three sets in a rematch of the 2019 singles final.
Thiem, who is coming off the U.S. Open championship, is in his fifth consecutive appearance at the ATP finale. He defeated Tsitsipas 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3 in just more than two hours.
"I experienced in the past four years how important it is to have a good start in this tournament, to ideally win the first match. I am very happy that I did it," Thiem said after the match.
Nadal and Thiem will square off Tuesday.