Preview and predictions for the tennis match between Rafael Nadal vs Karen Khachanov in the semifinals of the Mubadala WTC in Abu Dhabi on Friday 20 December - Nadal has an unbeaten record against Khachanov, who has not only lost all seven of their matches but has only won one out of 16 sets played against the Spanish left-hander
Rafael Nadal aims to maintain a perfect record against Karen Khachanov as the world no. 1 takes on the powerful Russian in the semifinals of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
Nadal has won the Abu Dhabi exhibition, moved this year to a pre-Christmas date, four times with his most recent victory coming in 2016. The winner of the semifinal clash with Khachanov will face either Novak Djokovic or Stefanos Tsitsipas in Saturday’s final.
It hasn’t even been three full weeks since Nadal finished his 2019 season, a particularly grueling one at that, and it’s a bit surprising that the injury-prone Spaniard wouldn’t sit this one out, even if it is an exhibition. Nevertheless, money talks and it’s an opportunity to maintain the momentum Nadal built up over an absolutely superb season that saw him become the oldest man ever to record a year-end world no. 1 finish – the fifth time he has held the top spot at the end of the year, tying Djokovic, Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors for second place behind Pete Sampras’s all-time record.
Nadal went 57-7 in 2019, winning the French Open for the twelfth time as we all more or less expected but also impressing on hard courts, winning the Canada Masters and the US Open to bring his overall Grand Slam haul to 19, tantalizingly close to Federer’s total of 20. He was unable to reach the semifinals at the Nitto ATP Finals in London despite wins over Daniil Medvedev and Tsitsipas, a straight-sets loss to Alexander Zverev hurting him in the complicated maths of round-robin, but despite dire predictions was able to bring the year to a triumphant close when he won all five singles matches he played in straight sets as well as some vital doubles rubbers to help Spain win the first ‘new-look’ Davis Cup, an especially meaningful win given that the week-long finals were hosted at the Caja Magica in Madrid.
One of those Nadal defeated in straight sets was Karen Khachanov, who made a gallant effort – alongside Andrey Rublev, also playing the Mubadala WTC – to eliminate Serbia from contention and put Russia in the quarterfinals, only to find themselves falling short against Canada.
Khachanov’s 2019 season, in contrast to Nadal’s, was widely viewed as a disappointment. The powerful Russian had raised expectations sky-high when he stormed to the Paris Masters title in October 2018 but he went a disappointing 30-29 in 2019, with only three decent results to show for his year: A quarterfinal appearance at the French Open and semifinal showings at the China Open in Beijing and the Canada Masters.
Khachanov did however get off to a winning start on Thursday against Hyeon Chung – another player who struggled immensely in 2019, playing only six matches in the first six months of the season – racing to a 3-0 start on the former Australian Open semifinalist and eventually closing out a 7-6(4), 6-4 victory. Nadal will be a completely different test to the defensively-oriented and somewhat underpowered Chung, and it’s a test that Khachanov has not done well on in the past. All seven of their previous meetings have gone Nadal’s way. Worse, Khachanov has only won one of 16 sets against Nadal – and although the big-serving Russian has managed to take Nadal to a tie-break seven times, he has never won a single one.
It’s not certain what Khachanov, a powerful but somewhat slow-moving player with little variety in his game, can do against Nadal, who has so many ways to hurt him in addition to being able to soak up his power. The saving grace for Khachanov might be that this is after all an exhibition, and Nadal is unlikely to want to play Djokovic tomorrow. A win for the Russian wouldn’t count in the head-to-head, but I still think Nadal is unlikely to allow him one.
Nadal vs Khachanov is live from Abu Dhabi on Friday 20 December at 7pm local/3pm GMT