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Spain edges Belgium to reach ATP Cup semifinals

Rafael Nadal,Pablo Carreno Busta

Rafael Nadal and Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain react to winning a point against Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen of Belgium during their ATP Cup tennis match in Sydney, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Christo)


SYDNEY — Rafael Nadal lost a singles match for only the second time since July, and was two points from another defeat not long after that would have ended Spain’s run at the ATP Cup.

But after losing to David Goffin 6-4, 7-6 (3) in the singles on Friday, the top-ranked Nadal combined with Pablo Carreno Busta to win the deciding doubles in a match tiebreaker against Belgium. The victory just after 1 a.m. in Sydney put Davis Cup champion Spain into the semifinals against host Australia.

“David played a great match. Better than me. I was suffering a lot physically today. Was big humidity,” Nadal said. “But at the same time is fair to say that we are in the worst position to play the final eight, because we came from Perth. That’s these three hours’ time changing, different weather conditions, playing against a team that have been here for the last 10 days.

“And today we had very heavy conditions out there, so probably we had the worst situation possible to play this tie. We are super happy that finally we find a way to be in that semifinals, and tomorrow is another day.”

Second-ranked Novak Djokovic had a comeback 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4) win over Denis Shapovalov of Canada to clinch a semifinal spot for Serbia against Russia.

Dusan Lajovic had earlier beaten Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 6-2 and so Djokovic’s win sealed the victory ahead of the doubles match, giving Serbia a spot in the semifinals. Serbia won the doubles to complete a 3-0 sweep.

The night session was seesawing encounter until the end.

Roberto Bautista Agut had given Spain a 1-0 lead when he continued his run of straight-set wins with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Kimmer Coppejans, a late replacement for Belgium playing captain Steve Darcis.

Nadal didn’t drop a set in three group-stage singles matches in Perth in the new international team competition, but was unable to break down a free-swinging Goffin in Sydney.

He appeared fatigued at times in the singles, and again in the doubles against Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen, dropping the first set in a tiebreaker. The Belgians were two points from victory at 5-4 on Busta’s serve but the Spanish players rallied and got the decisive break when the chair umpire ruled that Vliegen’s racket encroached over the net as he volleyed. Spain converted the break with that point, and Nadal served out to level the match.

In the end, Nadal’s big-time experience helped Spain clinch the doubles 6-7 (7), 7-5, 10-7.

Nadal went into the singles match as the big favorite, having lost only one match - to Alexander Zverev in the round-robin stage of the ATP Finals - since his Wimbledon semifinal loss to Roger Federer.

The 11th-ranked Goffin took it to Nadal, attacking at every opportunity and shutting down his rival’s options.

“Oh, it’s always big when you play Rafa on a big stadium, night session, you play for your country,” Goffin said. “We were 1-0 down, I had to step out on the court and try to fight, to show what I can do to play my best tennis, try to go, to stick to my line, try to dictate, be aggressive.

“That’s what I did. So a match like this, to win against Rafa, it’s something big, something big for me.”

Djokovic lost a set for the first time in the tournament, but managed to hold off Shapovalov, controlling the tiebreaker after three sets lasting 2 1/2 hours.

Dusan Lajovic had earlier beaten Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 6-2 and so Djokovic’s win sealed the victory ahead of the doubles match, giving Serbia a spot in the semifinals. Serbia won the doubles to complete a 3-0 sweep.

“That was so close, it could have gone in a different way easily. (Shapovalov) was playing terrific tennis,” Djokovic said. “It felt, not a little bit, fully like I’m playing at home.”

Djokovic, who has won a record seven Australian Open men’s singles titles, went 3-0 in the group stage in Brisbane.

“I’m mean, Brisbane we had amazing support - but this has taken it to a different level,” Djokovic said. “All the Serbian people came out today.”

The constant chants and even a burst of trumpet from the flag-waving Serbian fans certainly helped Djokovic. The 16-time major champion reveled in the team environment, with his teammates and coaches on the side of the court, and the echo of “Nole, Nole, Nole” going around the stadium.

Shapovalov complained about the noise made as he served a double-fault to fall behind 4-0 in the tiebreaker, and the umpire asked the crowd to keep quiet during the service motion.

He was agitated during the match but didn’t complain later, saying he was getting more comfortable taking on Djokovic and the other top players.

“With my confidence right now, with my game, I really feel that I can take it to anyone, and I feel like against anyone I have a chance to win,” Shapovalov said. “Today again, it’s another step for me, showing me that I’m right there with these guys. Honestly, I was a couple points away from taking the match. So, yeah, I think I’m at a really good position.”