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Pablo Cuevas celebrates after defeating Rafael Nadal en route to the 2016 Rio Open title.

ATP Legacy: Cuevas Outlasts Nadal On Way To 2016 Rio Title

Uruguayan reflects on late-night Nadal thriller

Uruguay’s Pablo Cuevas has won six ATP Tour titles in his career, but one stands out above the rest. The 36-year-old won three straight titles in Sao Paolo from 2015-17, but it was another Brazilian triumph—in Rio de Janeiro in 2016—that proved most memorable.

“Winning that tournament was the most beautiful title that I won,” he reflected. “Winning a tournament—and that one in particular, in the way I did it and with the opponents that I faced—it gives you a sense of power. You feel almost invincible.”

After losing to Rafael Nadal in a three-set semi-final at the 2015 Rio Open presented by Claro, Cuevas again met the Spaniard for a semi on the red clay the following year. In the rematch, the Uruguayan pulled out a 6-7(6), 7-6(3), 6-4 win that finished close to 1 a.m after nearly three-and-a-half hours.

“To face Rafa on a clay court is without doubt one of the greatest challenges that exists in tennis,” Cuevas, who was ranked World No. 45 at the time, said in a Spanish-language interview as he reflected on the match.

After forcing a deciding set, he got the crucial break at 3-all in the third and was able to close from there—but not without a healthy dose of nerves.

“When I got the break in the third set, I started to think that I had a real chance to win the match… You start to forget about tactics and strategy. You think more about [winning], and you forget a little about the ‘how’. That’s what makes you feel tenser.

“At match point I remember I thought: ‘Should I just play it in, the first serve, or should I go for everything.’ And I said, ‘If I’m aggressive, I’ll have less [regrets].’ And I went for an ace. I think I did an ace.”

He did indeed close it out with an ace—his 10th of the match—putting him through to the final against Guido Pella of Argentina.

“It had been my best victory by far and the next day I had to put the finishing touches on that week. I felt that to complete this and to make sure this win wasn’t forgotten, I had to win the tournament. So I was enjoying this great triumph, but at the same time I still had a match to win.”

Cuevas went on to finish the job, beating Pella, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-4, for his fourth ATP Tour title and the first of two in 2016.

It was a title he envisioned himself winning before the event even started, thanks to a chance encounter with David Ferrer on the plane from a previous tournament Buenos Aires, where the Spaniard beat him in three sets.

"We were on the same flight and we were seated together, and I remember some of the things that David told me," Cuevas recalled. “Somehow he summed up the things that I did great and that forced him to bring out his best potential [to beat me]. Even though I was playing well, that was an even bigger confidence booster. It isn’t usual on the Tour that a rival tells you these kind of things, let alone a player like David."

In August of that season, Cuevas reached a career-high ATP Ranking of World No. 19.