It didn’t take long, and he wasn’t tested much to get there, but Rafael Nadal is back playing in a final of an ATP tournament.
His opponent, the lefty Horacio Zeballos, is a 27-year-0ld Argentine ranked No. 73 in the world. You might remember him because he won the ATP’s “Newcomer of the Year” award in 2009. Zeballos played just 12 tour-level matches last year, going 3-9. However, he started his 2013 season out by winning a Challenger in Sao Paulo.
Of course, beating Rogerio Dutra-Silva in the final of a Challenger is a slightly different challenge than beating Rafael Nadal on clay. Needless to say, Zeballos probably doesn’t have much of a chance against the greatest clay court player of all-time, rusty or not.
Uphill battle in the final aside, Zeballos has had quite a nice run at Viña del Mar, beating a line-up consisting exclusively of Argentinians and Spaniards. He beat Diego Schwartzman, Pablo Andujar, Albert Ramos, and Carlos Berlocq to reach the final. Not bad for a player who calls hard courts his favorite surface.
For Nadal, this tournament has been an ideal return to the tour. Playing a smaller event with a weaker field allows Nadal to get singles matches in without having to face a top 10 player in his third or fourth match back. It’s extremely hard to gauge Nadal’s true level in matches like these, but we’ll have plenty of time for that once Nadal is playing a larger event. In the meantime, Nadal is winning ATP matches, and the tennis community is better for having him back.
I’ll be liveblogging all the action here, so please refresh the page for updates!
First Set – Horacio Zeballos Will Serve First
0-0: Zeballos comes up with a couple of serves that Rafa is forced to return short, allowing Zeballos easy put-aways. He holds to 15 on a nice rally that has Rafa on his heels.
1-0, Zeballos: Rafa opens with a double fault. He appears to be bothered by the clay near the service line. Rafa is struggling a little bit with depth so far, and it’s 15-30 on an unforced error for Rafa. Zeballos earns two chances to break on a Rafa forehand dumped into the net. Zeballos sends a backhand long on the first one, and fails to return Rafa’s serve on the next. Deuce. Rafa manages a hold for 1-all.
1-all: Zeballos hits a bad drop shot, but improvises to win the point. He then hammers three aces to hold serve.
2-1, Zeballos: Rafa holds easily at love, hitting a beautiful defensive backhand winner.
2-all: Rafa again struggles to get into Zeballos’ service game. He’s not reading the serve well. Zeballos holds at 15, aided by two more aces.
3-2, Zeballos: Rafa is taken to deuce, but he holds off for 3-all.
3-all: Zeballos wins a long rally to get to 40-15. Commentating on the Tennis Channel, Justin Gimelstob somehow spins that as a bad thing for him. Nevertheless, he holds for 4-3.
4-3, Zeballos: Rafa is hitting with more depth now. He forces a few errors from Zeballos, and hits an ace to hold at love.
Zeballos has a very elongated backhand grunt. Not only does it go nicely with his one-handed backhand, it nearly drowns out the Gimeltalk.
— Arienna Lee (@ExtremeGrip) February 10, 2013
4-all: Unfortunately for Nadal, he’s having a great deal of trouble working his way into Zeballos’ service games. Zeballos gets another easy hold. Nadal has won a grand total of three points on Zeballos’ serve so far.
5-4: Nadal earns an easy hold of his own. The server is in complete control of the match so far.
5-all: Nadal still can’t win points on Zeballos’ serve. He’s standing so far back behind the baseline on the return, he’s nearly out of the picture on TV. Zeballos holds, and the pressure will go on Nadal to serve to stay in the set.
6-5, Zeballos: Zeballos isn’t doing much better than Nadal on the return. He’s only won six points on Nadal’s serve so far. And this is going to a tiebreak.
Tiebreak: Nadal takes the first point of the tiebreak on Zeballos’ serve. The way these two are serving/returning, that could be enough. Nadal holds both of his service points for 3-0.
it’s all downhill from here for Z-Ball
— Ricky Dimon (@RD_Tennistalk) February 10, 2013
Zeballos gets on the board for 1-3, but he misses an inside-out forehand for 1-4. Rafa hits a great serve down the T, and puts away the short reply. Nadal earns four set points. Rafa cracks a backhand return winner to take the set. He throws in a “vamos” and a fist pump.
First set stats:
Second Set: Rafael Nadal Will Serve First
0-0: Zeballos manages to bring Nadal to deuce in Nadal’s first service game, but Nadal holds again. Zeballos has pushed Nadal on serve early in both sets, but he has nothing to show for it.
1-0, Nadal: Nadal is still stubbornly standing to return serve in Siberia. It’s not working, really. I guess he wants to play a longer match, just for kicks. Zeballos holds at 30.
encouraging sign that Rafa is winning a match on a fast hard court
— Ricky Dimon (@RD_Tennistalk) February 10, 2013
1-all: Zeballos is sticking to his aggressive game plan, but it’s not paying off on Rafa’s serve. Too many errors. Rafa holds at love.
Uncle Toni wearing the same polo Rafa had on for his last doubles match. Maymo sitting behind him. twitter.com/Atch2/status/3…
— Atch (@Atch2) February 10, 2013
2-1, Nadal: Rafa hits a beautiful forehand down-the-line to get to 15-30 on Zeballos’ serve. He’s digging into the match a little more now. Zeballos hits a terrible drop shot wide, and Rafa has two chances to break, his first of the match. Zeballos saves the first one with a winner off a short return. He saves the second with an ace down the T. Zeballos stays strong, and holds for 2-all.
2-all: Zeballos cracks a return winner for 15-all, but Nadal shows off some composure at the net to close out another hold at 15.
3-2, Nadal: Zeballos hits a perfect lob winner over Rafa. The 27-year-old isn’t going away. He holds for 3-all.
Zeballos so far defying gravity. Great to see.
— Jesse Pentecost (@thenextpoint) February 10, 2013
3-all: This feels so different, yet so much like the Australian Open final, which featured 27 straight holds of serve. Rafa holds again.
Rafa’s “are we still doing this?” face after winning a big point or a game will never get old.
— Brodie (@MindTheRacket) February 10, 2013
4-3, Nadal: Rafa hits a lovely backhand volley winner for 0-15. Despite facing 0-30, Zeballos gets to 40-30 with some help from Rafa, and a little courage. Gimelstob thinks Rafa will have trouble with closing out the match because of “lack of experience.” No.
Rafa close the match quick! Let’s shorten the Gimelstob time
— James (@lkt12356) February 10, 2013
4-all: Rafa holds. As well as Zeballos is playing, it still feels like this match is fully in Nadal’s control.
LOL when Nadal crushes a down the line winner from 6 feet behind the baseline off his back foot #unreal
— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) February 10, 2013
5-4, Nadal: Zeballos hits a dazzling backhand slice passing shot winner. Nadal one-ups it with a running forehand defensive passing shot winner. Zeballos dumps a backhand slice into the net. It’s 15-30. Zeballos snuffs out Nadal’s hope with two great serves to get to 40-30. Zeballos holds for 5-all with another fantastic slice, and plays some tennis football to please the crowd.
5-all: Nadal serves-and-volleys, for some reason. Zeballos pounces on a second serve, returning it for a winner for 15-30. Nadal puts away a short ball with a forehand winner that clips the line, then follows it up with an unreturned serve for 40-30. He holds for 6-5.
6-5, Nadal: If we expected Zeballos to go away, we were wrong. This is going to a tiebreak, after a love hold.
Tiebreak: Rafa holds his first service point. Zeballos wins a long rally, pushing Rafa from side to side. Zeballos holds for 2-1, and they change ends at 3-all, no minibreaks. Rafa finally hits a backhand long, and it’s 5-3 for Zeballos. Rafa gets one back, and Zeballos will serve at 5-4. Zeballos earns two set points off an unreturned serve. Rafa saves one with a great drop shot, and he saves another with a bad unforced error off Zeballos’ racquet. They change ends again at 6-all. Zeballos hits a backhand return winner off a Rafa first serve. Another chance to close out the set. This is going to three sets.
Here are your second set stats:
Third Set: Horacio Zeballos Will Serve First
0-0: Rafa comes out hot, earning three break points off a backhand down-the-line. He finally makes one count as Zeballos smacks a forehand into the net.
1-0, Nadal: Not so fast. Zeballos earns two break points to get back on serve. Rafa saves them both, but is broken on Zeballos’ third try of the game off an awful botched volley into the net. Back on serve.
— Lindsay Gibbs (@linzsports) February 10, 2013
1-all: Zeballos backs up the break with a strong hold at love.
Nadal hasn’t lost to someone outside Top 50 on clay since Olivier Mutis in 2004 Palermo. He has 78 straight wins since. tennisabstract.com/cgi-bin/player…
— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) February 10, 2013
2-1, Zeballos: Zeballos has the chance to take Rafa to deuce, but he hits a forehand wide. Rafa holds.
2-all: Zeballos holds, and the Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber tries to compare Nadal’s knee injuries to football players’ permanent brain damage caused by their sport. Yikes.
Rafa is signaling to his box about something. Either that or he’s hailing a cab. #atp
— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) February 10, 2013
3-2, Zeballos: A couple of signs that Zeballos might be tiring. He hardly tries to stay in Nadal’s service game. Nadal holds at love.
3-all: At 15-30, Zeballos takes a time violation. Still, he holds.
Zeballos holds from 15-30. Leads 4-3, on serve. If Nadal can get his opponent to run side to side 3 times, he wins the point.
— Andrew Burton (@burtonad) February 10, 2013
Nadal is 5-7 in last 12 matches to go to deciding sets after starting career 102-42, including 14 straight in 2008. tennisabstract.com/cgi-bin/player…
— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) February 10, 2013
4-3, Zeballos: Zeballos hits a fantastic drop shot that hits the line and curls out of the court to earn a break point. Nadal saves it, and holds with some help from a friendly netcord.
4-all: Zeballos holds at love.
5-4, Zeballos: Zeballos ends a long rally, hitting an incredible drop shot that just gets over the net. It’s 0-30 on Nadal’s serve. Zeballos hits an unbelievable forehand on the run that Rafa can’t get to. Three championship points, Zeballos. Rafa dumps a forehand into the net, and Zeballos has done it! Zeballos d. Nadal, 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-4.
— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) February 11, 2013
Zeballos is very happy for what he’s achieved. He’s happy to have Rafa back on tour & congratulates him for being such a great human being
— Genny SS (@genny_ss) February 11, 2013
Third set stats:
I’m surprised Nadal lost this match. There were times where I thought he might pull away from Zeballos (like when he broke to start the third set), but Zeballos played the match of his life. Of course, that’s why they play the matches.
As for Nadal, this match should serve as a small wakeup call to anyone who thinks he can pick up exactly where he left off after injury (such belief was a bit silly to begin with). A seven month absence from the ATP Tour is tough. Remember, it took Juan Martin del Potro a long time to get back to his peak form after missing eight months on tour.
But when I say it should be a wakeup call, I don’t mean that anyone should hit the panic button on Nadal. He still has some time to prepare for Roland Garros, and I am certain he will be in better form at that point, provided his knees don’t give him any more trouble in his return.
I do think certain parts of Nadal’s game need a lot of work. His return game was very poor today, and he stood too far behind the baseline to return second serves in particular. His court positioning was especially passive, which doesn’t help his cause. Standing so far back forces him to run around even more than usual, which is probably not what he wants to do coming back from serious knee injuries. It’s difficult for him, no doubt, since it takes confidence to play aggressive tennis, and Nadal is probably still short on that in his return. Still, he will need to address those issues if he hopes to repeat at Roland Garros this year.
Final match stats: