SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Rafael Nadal secured a comeback victory against Australia's Alex De Minaur at the ATP Cup in Sydney on Saturday (Jan 11), propelling Spain into the final of the inaugural event to play the Novak Djokovic-led Serbian team.
The world's top ranked player was ambushed early by the young Australian, who threatened to run away with the match, before the Spaniard recovered to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Earlier in the evening, Roberto Bautista Agut played a near flawless match to defeat a misfiring Nick Kyrgios 6-1, 6-4, giving Spain an unassailable lead going into the doubles match.
The top 20-ranked de Minaur, who had previously not won a set against the Spaniard, threw his wiry frame at every shot, breaking Nadal's serve in the first game of the match before going on to take the set.
The Australian hopped into his backhands, such was his determination to throw himself forward, and launched into the air to hit his punishing forehands, all while refusing to be pushed back by Nadal's wicked topspin.
Nadal, one of the most dangerous players to serve against, remarkably did not earn a break point on the Australian's serve until late in the second set, which he converted despite enjoying little momentum up until that point.
Nadal then reeled off four straight games to set up the third set victory as de Minaur's error count rose, and the Spaniard found his range.
In the other semi-final, world No. 2 Novak Djokovic played tactical tennis to overcome the enigmatic Daniil Medvedev in a tight three-set match, which secured Serbia's place in the final.
The Serbian won the contest 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 after he found success pushing the 1.98m Russian around the court, forcing Medvedev to constantly scrape shots off his shoe laces.
Serbia's Dusan Lajovic had earlier beaten his more highly ranked opponent, Russia's Karen Khachanov, giving Serbia an unassailable 2-0 lead going into the doubles match.
Less than two weeks out from the Australian Open, Djokovic gave the world's top players a possible blueprint on how to beat the 23-year-old Russian who has been toppling the game's elite.
While Medvedev's slapping forehand, flat backhand and big serve have proven hard to counter, Djokovic used drop shots and low slicing backhands to pull the world No. 5 into awkward places.
"I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do - and it worked great but then he started figuring it out," said Djokovic.
Medvedev, who was undefeated at the ATP Cup going into the match, clawed back into the contest, prompting Djokovic to destroy a racket that a young Serbian supporter later claimed as a memento.
Djokovic's energy stores appeared depleted even though the players were enjoying a respite from the intense heat that has been fuelling bush fires across Australia.
The introduction of the ATP Cup to the southern hemisphere calendar has created the most gruelling and entertaining start to the Australian tennis season in memory, as the world's best male players chase prize money, ranking points and a team trophy rather than play in grand slam warm-up events.
"At one point we both refused to miss," Djokovic said.
"There was a lot of rallies and it was very exhausting, a very physical battle but also a mental battle."
Djokovic secured a break of serve in the fifth game and his own serve held firm for the remainder, which ended when the Russian netted a groundstroke.