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Viña del Mar: Zeballos offers reality check to the King of Clay

Anand Datla
FEATURED COLUMNIST
11 Feb 2013, 15:40 IST

The week was in the making for an incredible 222 days, that is the time it took Rafael Nadal to return on court after his disappointing second round loss to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon last year. Horacio Zeballos, the Argentine David to the Spanish Goliath across the net, proved beyond doubt how difficult it is even for the ‘King of Clay’ to return from a lay-off and strike the right chords. The world No. 73 played the match of his life to upset Nadal in three arduous sets – 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-4 in two hours and 47 minutes and take the first title of his career at the VTR Open in the Chilean resort town of Viña del Mar.

It was a Sunday meant to celebrate the return of the King – Nadal was in the finals of both the singles and doubles events and it was expected that he would coast home to comfortable victories and provide a double delight to his many eager followers across the globe. As the day unfolded, unfortunately Nadal was in for a reality check as he stumbled to defeat in both his singles and doubles matches to receive an immediate reminder about the work that remains to be done before he can mount an assault for what might be his eighth French Open crown later this summer in Paris.

Nadal started the second game with a double fault and Zeballos, who just held his serve firing forehand winners at will, hung with the great champion to force a couple of break points. But Nadal used the kick serve into the Argentine’s body to telling effect to come through the early test. With Zeballos dealing in aces and Nadal responding in kind with an effective slice serve, the set was pushed into a tie-breaker. The Argentine’s forehand failed him at vital junctures and Nadal took full advantage to take a 5-1 lead. The Spaniard sealed the set, with a thumping backhand return winner just inside the hour. Things seemed on course at that stage for the most successful dirt-baller in the history of the game.

The Argentine had proclaimed Nadal God in the run up to the finals. Perhaps the fact that he could waltz with the wizard, convinced Zeballos that the opponent across the net was indeed human. And evidence of his new found faith came in the very first game of the second set, when he pushed Nadal to deuce despite the dispiriting loss of the first set. Zeballos provided further credence, when he won four straight points from 15-40 in the fourth game – including an ace and a blazing forehand winner to maintain parity at 2-2. Nadal’s movement this week has been a few shades below the normal and the Spaniard just could not force the issue on the steady serve of  Zeballos. As expected the second set had to be decided on a breaker too. Only this time, it was a more even contest.

The first mini-break came about on the eighth point, when Nadal sailed a backhand down the line long. But Nadal reeled the breaker back on serve when Zeballos over cooked a forehand cross court to squander his first set point at 6-4. But after failing to convert even on at the second time of asking, Zeballos showed great courage while the match was hanging by the thread at 6-6. He followed a resounding backhand return winner with a thunderous forehand winner down the line to sting the King and force a third set. Remarkably, Zeballos had managed just seven games in all when they met at the French Open in 2010. And here he was, battling toe to toe with the man that owned the game on the red dirt.

There was hardly anything separating the two men through those two sets, so it only made sense that they were split down the middle. It must have also been the natural thing for Nadal to be offended by the marauder just as it was to lose focus for the raider who managed to snag a set from the man he considered God. A combination of the two left Zeballos broken to love in the first game of the third set. The fleeting game brought the Argentine back on his feet, and they were proving to be the steadier of the two pairs on the court. Nadal was quickly on the defensive at 15-40 in the second game. The Spaniard saved both break points, but a couple of forehand errors in succession offered the break back to the Argentine. Growing in confidence, Zeballos held his next two service games to love and remain on an even keel with the legend across the net.

The Argentine started to smell blood when he struck a couple of aces to clinch the ninth game at love and he extracted it all setting up three match points with a brutal forehand cross court winner that left a stunned Nadal stranded without a response. The underdog needed just the one as Nadal crashed his forehand down the line into the bottom of the net to leave him defeated in a clay court final for only the fifth time in his prolific career. Zeballos had never ever won a tournament before this and suddenly found himself catapulted into the exalted company of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, who are the only other men to have beaten the Spaniard in the finals on red dirt.

“It’s a dream for me,” said the 27-year-old Argentine. “To be able to play a final against Nadal was already good enough for me. It’s a moment that will stay in my memory for the rest of my life.”

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“It was a great tournament for me,” said Nadal, trying to remain positive. “I just need to keep working, practising with hope, motivation and the right attitude to have better sensations every week. I hope it’s the beginning of a lot of good things for me.”

Later in the day, Nadal faced further disappointment when he joined Monaco on court to face yet another loss. Italians Paolo Lorenzi and Potito Starace took advantage of the wounded lion to post an impressive 6-2, 6-4 victory and take the doubles title. Nadal has no time to recuperate or reflect though, as he is scheduled to fly into Sao Paulo for another ATP 250 event. On the short flight there, he might like to discuss his tardy movement, a tame second serve, the inconsistent backhand and his position on the court – some of the reasons that compromised his ability to dictate terms this week. The golden swing was never as interestingly poised as it is now, stay tuned.

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