Feat of Clay: Zeballos Stuns Nadal
A comeback tour-de-force that was designed to gain momentum through the South American summer stumbled at the first stop when Argentine Horacio Zeballos topped clay-court superfreak Rafael Nadal, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-4, to win his first title of any sort on any surface at the VTP Open in Vina del Mar, Chile.
Ending a seven-month absence due to an injured knee and then an illness, Nadal exhibited extended displays of his usual dominance in the matches leading up to the final, but hints of hindrance inserted themselves into the proceedings enough to serve notice that both recovery and rust are still affecting the Spanish master's game. For example, he seemed surprised to fall behind another Argentine, Federico Delbonis, 2-0 before roaring back to take his second-round match, 6-3,6-2. Nadal clearly had to work harder than expected in 100º-plus temperatures, and perhaps that took a subtle toll.
Meanwhile, 10-year veteran Zeballos, ranked No 73 in the world, didn't necessarily cruise through his bracket, but did enough to find himself across the net from the claycourt king for the singles title.
Girding for the task, Zeballos gave notice that he wouldn't go quietly, firing pinpoint serves and consistently hitting the corners that had Nadal on the run from the start. The seven-time French Open conqueror flashed his mettle sufficiently to finally prevail in a tiebreaker, but the 27-year-old Argentine had found his rhythm. This became fact when Zeballos won the second-set tie-breaker, after which he thrust his arms triumphantly skyward and fixed a piercing gaze upon Nadal. On this day, he had proven to himself that he was at least the Spanish legend's equal.
Nadal rallied to break Zeballos and take the third set's first game, but that was his last hurrah. Zeballos returned the favor in the second game, held serve the rest of the way, and then claimed the championship with a break in the final game. He added to his career winnings of $1.3million -- compared to Nadal's $50million -- and created the memory of a lifetime.
For Nadal, his build-up to the French Open takes on additional resolve. He returns to action immediately in this week's Brazilian Open, followed by an appearance in Acapulco at month's end. Both, naturally, are clay-court competitions. And both have now become odds-on occasions for Nadal to prove to himself and the world he is well and truly back to bracket-blasting form.