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Steve Flink: Nadal stunned by inspired Zeballos in Vina del Mar final

2/11/2013 1:00:00 PM

He had been away from tournament tennis for no fewer than 222 days, across more than seven months, through the most trying period of his illustrious career. He returned in Vina del Mar as both a dreamer and a hard realist, hoping he could capture the ATP World Tour 250 event on his beloved clay, knowing how difficult it is to recover your old form when competing becomes tantamount to a brand new experience. He probably realized that fans from all parts of the world were pulling for him unabashedly, expecting this eleven time Grand Slam tournament champion to reemerge triumphantly in Chile, wanting him to celebrate his comeback on the best possible terms.

In the end, it did not quite work out that way for the estimable Rafael Nadal, the most charismatic player in the game. Nadal swept through three matches without the loss of a set to reach the final, and was only two elusive points away from capturing his 51st career singles championship. But in a suspenseful battle of left-handers, Nadal could not find a way to finish off 27-year-old Horacio Zeballos, a surprisingly obstinate adversary who seemed spent physically yet refused to surrender down the stretch. Zeballos secured his first ever title on the ATP World Tour. Ranked No. 73 in the world coming into this event, he played like a far more accomplished competitor, losing his excellent serve only once in three sets, toppling an off key Nadal 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-4 in a two hour, 46 minute clash.

In many ways, Zeballos played madly inspired tennis while Nadal grew increasingly apprehensive over the latter stages of both the second and third sets. From the outset, Zeballos was finding the corners with supreme placement and good variation on his southpaw serve. In the opening set, Nadal was not even creating opportunities to get a service break. To be sure, he stood too far back behind the baseline on second serve returns, and missed some relatively easy returns when he might have made his presence known more tellingly.

In six service games en route to a first set tie-break, the remarkable Zeballos made 70% of his first serves, released five aces, and won a staggering 24 of 28 points on his unshakable delivery. To be sure, Nadal was not as assertive as he needed to be on the return, unable to get the depth he needed to take control of rallies. Meanwhile, Nadal had a few anxious moments on his own serve, which he handled resolutely. Serving at 0-1, he commenced that game with a timid double fault into the net, fell behind 15-40, but raised his game decidedly, took command off his forehand, and held on with four points in a row for 1-1. At 2-3, Nadal was pushed to deuce, but once more he met the challenge sternly and held on. From that juncture, the Spaniard served three love games in a row on his way to a tie-break.

Unsurprisingly, Zeballos played that tie-break untidily. He went behind a mini-break immediately by carelessly driving a backhand crosscourt wide. Nadal marched to 3-0, and never looked back. Zeballos managed to unleash two winners in the tie-break but Nadal did not make a single unforced error. The Spaniard prevailed seven points to two, as a besieged Zeballos unraveled, losing four out of five points on serve.

It seemed only a matter of time before Nadal would exploit his experience, stamp his authority, and close out the account with his customary front-runner’s fervor. The heavy favorite clearly had his chances to do just that. Leading 2-1 in the second set, he moved ahead 15-40 on Zeballos’s serve, but did not display his customary big point prowess. On the first break point, Nadal left his first serve return much too short, and Zeballos thumped a forehand approach crosscourt that was too much for the Spaniard to handle. Then Zeballos served an ace down the T. He soon held for 2-2. Not long after, Zeballos was back in serious jeopardy, serving at 3-4, 0-30. Nadal seemed poised to break and thus give himself a chance to serve for the match.

Zeballos had other notions, throwing in a gutsy drop shot winner to make it 15-30, taking the next point for 30-30, then holding for 4-4 with consecutive down the line winners off his elegantly produced one-handed topspin backhand. Two games later, serving at 4-5, Zeballos was two points from defeat at 15-30. Nadal had a golden opportunity there as the Argentine missed a first serve. Nadal lined up a forehand crosscourt return off the second serve, but smothered that shot with excessive topspin into the net. That was the single most important point of the match, and a glaring missed opportunity for Nadal. Zeballos aced Nadal for 40-30, and then caught his luminous rival off guard with a biting sliced backhand down the line, drawing a running forehand error from the Spaniard. Both men held to set up another tie-break, and the smart money was clearly on Nadal.

And yet, Zeballos was not the same disheveled player he had been in the first set. He was nearly impenetrable. Serving at 2-3 in that critical sequence, he aced Nadal down the T in the Ad Court, and then ripped a scorching forehand approach off another short return from Nadal. The Spaniard missed the passing shot. Nadal was plainly nervous, missing a manageable two-handed backhand long down the line to give Zeballos a 5-3 lead. Nadal took the next point, but Zeballos was serving at 5-4, two points away from forcing a third and final set. He produced an un-returnable serve to make it 6-4, but Nadal majestically saved that set point with a superb backhand drop shot sliced delicately down the line, provoking an errant forehand passing shot wide from his adversary.

When Zeballos missed a routine backhand wide on the next point to allow Nadal back to 6-6, the Spaniard was once again only two points away from extending his career record in clay court finals to 37-4. In his renowned career, Nadal had lost to only two players in finals on the clay, falling against Roger Federer at Hamburg in 2007 and Madrid in 2009, bowing against Novak Djokovic in the 2011 Rome and Madrid title round matches. As the two players changed ends of the court, the crowd surely sensed that Nadal was primed to put this match into his victory column.

At 6-6, he elected to take something off his first serve, sending it to the backhand. That was probably the right tactic; Zeballos, after all, was error prone off the return on that side for most of the match. But now, at this crucial moment, he laced his return confidently down the line with plenty of margin for error for an outright winner, stunning Nadal, silencing the crowd. Serving at 7-6, an emboldened Zeballos audaciously drove an inside-out forehand behind Nadal, drawing a short reply from his opponent. Zeballos promptly stepped in for another inside-out forehand driven with utter conviction for a clean winner.

It was one set all. But Nadal broke Zeballos at love to commence the final set as the Argentine missed three out of four first serves. That was the first service break of the entire match, and Nadal had a chance to put the loss of the second set permanently behind him, to move on inexorably to victory. But his anxiety surfaced again. With Zeballos dictating from the back of the court and Nadal entirely too passive, the Spaniard drifted to 15-40 before making it back to deuce.  Nadal made a glaring unforced error off the forehand to go down break point again. He swung his first serve wide and followed it in, with the court wide open for him to deposit a backhand drop volley for a winner. But he anxiously sent that shot into the net. Zeballos had climbed back to 1-1.

On they went to 3-3, but Zeballos was visibly tiring as Nadal moved him from side to side and corner to corner, looking to send his opponent into submission once and for all. In that pivotal seventh game, Zeballos was down 15-30, and he received a warning for going over the 25 second limit between points. The Argentine needed to recover his resources and catch his breath. But he collected himself admirably, serving an ace out wide for 30-30, followed by an unstoppably deep second serve, and then a forehand winner up the line.

Zeballos had held on tenaciously for 4-3, surviving a potential crisis in the process. Nadal was physically stronger than Zeballos, probably by a considerable margin. But Zeballos was going for broke, taking all of his chances, driving through the ball immaculately. Nadal managed to hold on from 3-4, 30-40 with a clutch play, moving up to the net, making a crafty backhand drop volley down the line, provoking an errant forehand passing shot from a harried Zeballos. Nadal held on for 4-4, but that brave stand did not sway Zeballos, not in the least. Zeballos held at love for 5-4 with back to back aces from 30-0, his 12th and 13th of the contest.

Serving to stay in the match, Nadal could not find the freedom to go for his shots with gusto, and Zeballos was playing almost unconsciously, as if he had absolutely nothing to lose. He was astounding, cracking an inside-out forehand winner, making an exquisite forehand drop shot winner for 0-30, then pulling off a dazzling forehand crosscourt winner on the run off a backhand down the line from Nadal. Now at triple match point, Zeballos released one last devastating crosscourt forehand that was unmanageable for Nadal. Zeballos had boldly broken at love to complete a thoroughly improbable 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-4 victory. In the end, he clearly deserved his victory, outplaying Nadal down the stretch, refusing to give any ground when defeat seemed inevitable.

To be sure, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for a journeyman. Zeballos might have a career year in 2013, and perhaps finish the season inside the top 50 in the world. But he almost certainly won’t play another match like this one with Nadal ever again. He was magnificent, but he was not confronting the essential Nadal. He was competing against an all-time great who was getting reacquainted with match play after a long time away from his trade. Nadal simply did not have the inner conviction to win his first tournament back, even on his favorite surface, even when he moved within striking distance of seizing the title.

The loss was clearly a blow to Nadal, but it need not be devastating. His plan is to move on to the Brasil Open in Sao Paulo this week, take a week off, and then compete again the following week on clay. He will reassemble his game comprehensively over these next significant weeks, and become more and more like the Nadal of old. I have no doubt that his confidence will be restored. The larger question is whether or not Nadal’s left knee will allow him to perform at peak efficiency over time. I thought that—all things considered—his court coverage was impressive in Vina del Mar. Under the circumstances, after such a long time away from rigorous competition, considering how many doubts surely lingered uncomfortably in his mind, Nadal moved remarkably well. And yet, understandably, he was somewhat fragile under pressure, not as steely a competitor as he has always been, uncertain about what to do when the chips were on the line.

It won’t be long before the redoubtable Nadal resurfaces. I expect him to be closer to the height of his powers by April, when he will seek a ninth crown in a row on the red clay of Monte Carlo. Barring an unfortunate recurrence of his knee injury, Nadal will undoubtedly be in full flight when he heads back out onto the French clay to pursue an eighth title at Roland Garros. Meanwhile, he will keep taking it match by match, tournament by tournament, moment by moment, making progress steadily, rebuilding his psyche, adding layers to his conviction. The loss to Zeballos will not haunt Nadal. It will only add to his motivation and make him work even more ferociously to attain his goals.

Even in defeat, it was a joy to see Rafael Nadal back out among us, giving it his all, reminding everyone that there has never been a competitor quite like him in the sport’s storied history. Let’s give this exceedingly humble individual the time he needs to rediscover his winning ways, to start automatically playing the right shots at the right times, to become again the match player that he has always been. Rafael Nadal has come back earnestly and unequivocally to his profession, and the game is better for it.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.