Change ten seconds of this match, and the runaway narrative of the changing of the guard would already be in full flower. As it stands, a bricked forehand volley at 40-30, 5-3 in the third set was enough to defer the overthrow for another day. But, for both Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev, this match was more than That Volley, and its repercussions may be felt for the rest of the year.
It’s always strange to see Rafael Nadal in the role of seasoned veteran. The beard scruff, once a sign of youth, along with his piratas and tank tops, is now more rugged than careless, and the fist pumps more a display of dominance than defiance. Today, Rafa relied on his experience and the relative inexperience of his opponent to navigate himself out of a perilous situation. First, after losing the first set in a tiebreak, Rafa took advantage of Zverev’s letdown at the beginning of the second set to extract a punishing 6-0 set. But, it was late in the third set where Nadal really capitalized on his opponent’s shakiness. Even though That Volley could, and should have been made, Nadal stayed the course and kept making his younger opponent hit shot after shot, and capitalized on the nervy errors that resulted on virtually every point after That Volley.
As for Zverev, there are some forgettable moments, for sure — the entire second set, and any point after That Volley. But, Zverev also showed that he could grind it out in the first set, and also shoot ahead of Nadal with his powerful play up until 5-3 in the third set. There’s no doubt, from seeing his ashen expression as he approached the net for the handshake, that Zverev knew that this was a match he should have won. But knowing that he belongs among the game’s elite and needs to keep pushing himself to move forward should fuel his future matches in a way that a win today might now have.
It’s impossible to say whether this match will be the point where Nadal turns the corner from his recent troubles. His recent results have been too erratic, and the sources of his losses too hard to pin town to try to weave this into a broader narrative. The true test for Rafa, as always comes next month, as clay season begins. But, by staving off the young challenger, he lived to fight another day, which is really all he needed to do versus Alexander Zverev.