With his shaggy, rock-star hair that nearly obscures his vision, Andrey Rublev doesn’t look like a boxer. But he trains and fights like one.

His father, Andrey Sr., was a boxer in the Soviet Union and the younger Rublev dabbled in the sport in his youth and still frequently trains in a boxing gym. But the more his father exposed him to boxing, the more he realized that he preferred tennis, a sport with many similarities to boxing but one very notable bonus. “Nobody is going to punch you in the face on a tennis court,” Rublev said earlier this year.

In his opening match Sunday evening at the Nitto ATP Finals, Rublev will strike blows with racquets, not gloves, but he’ll be in for a street fight nevertheless against Rafael Nadal, who gives away points about as willingly as a Pit bull relinquishes a juicy bone.

Ranked No. 8 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, the 23-year-old Russian would appear to be an underdog against Nadal, a tennis goliath who recently notched his 1,000th career win at the Rolex Paris Masters. Rublev does the sign of the cross when he wins, but he has much more than just a prayer of making it out of Group London 2020.

He charges into the event with a burst of momentum after racking up a 40-8 record on the Tour this season with five titles, including wins in Doha, Adelaide, Hamburg, St. Petersburg, and Vienna. He’s 3-3 this season when facing Top 10 opponents, including wins against Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas, both of whom will tangle with him in Group London 2020.

Nadal and Rublev have squared off just once before—a three set demolition derby for the Mallorcan at the US Open in 2017. But Rublev version 2020 isn’t the same product as Rublev 2017, and indoor courts are Nadal’s least favourite stomping grounds. The brawny Spanish southpaw has never won the Nitto ATP Finals and has taken just two career titles indoors. He was asked about why he has struggled at times under the lights at media day on Friday.

“We can find excuses or reasons but, at the end of the day, the numbers are the numbers,” said Nadal, 34. “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.”

[WATCH LIVE 2]

But before you cue the sad violin music for poor Rafa, consider the fact that the Manacor native has qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals a record sixteen consecutive seasons. Still, he has a surprisingly pedestrian — by his insane standards — 18-14 career record at the tournament. Last year, he beat Daniil Medvedev and eventual champ Stefanos Tsitsipas in thrilling three-setters, but a poor showing in his 6-2, 6-4 loss to Alexander Zverev in his opening match doomed his chances to advance to the final four.

Nadal has made it to the final of the ATP Tour’s season finale twice, losing to Roger Federer in 2010 and to Novak Djokovic in 2013. But the Spaniard is bullish on his recent indoor form. He made it to the semi-finals indoors in Paris this month, where he lost a close match to Zverev. And last year, he led Spain to a Davis Cup win indoors over Canada.

”I think I am able to play a little better in the past couple of years indoors than I did at the beginning of my tennis career, without a doubt, but [these are] the numbers,” said Nadal. “I can’t say something different. I hope to change that this week.”

Rublev, who’ll be playing in the event for the first time, lives in Moscow, where his parents own a restaurant. Dominic Thiem suggested on media day that the lack of fans at The O2 might take some pressure off of Rublev and Schwartzman, the event’s debutants. But Rubles, as Brad Gilbert and others call him, begged to differ.

“Of course, I am feeling nervous,” he admitted on Friday. “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.”

[WATCH LIVE 3]

Rublev grew up revering both Nadal and Federer, so facing one of his idols at The O2, even without fans, will be a huge occasion for him.

“[Nadal] is one of the best players in the history of tennis, so I have nothing to lose,” he said. “I’ll go there to enjoy. All the pressure will be on him and in the end, we will see what is going to happen.”

Nadal may not have excelled at this tournament in the past, after all, he’s a beast who prefers the great outdoors, but this year has been like no other. Rafa played 65 matches in 2019 but just 30 so far this year, so his body should be fresher than usual. And can anyone doubt that a superstitious, some would say obsessive-compulsive man like Nadal isn’t extra motivated to place the one big trophy that’s eluded him in his museum in Manacor? In any case, it’ll be a fight featuring youth and momentum versus tenacity and experience.

Source: Tennis – ATP World Tour