Rafael Nadal lost a clay court final on Sunday to 27-year-old journeyman Horacio Zeballos, a player who never advanced past the second round of any tournament last season.
While this would normally be entered into the category of unbelievable or shocking, the most stunning thing is that this isn’t all that much of a surprise.
Yet it is still strange to recite the names of the last two players who have beaten Nadal; Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon back in June 2012 and Zeballos on Sunday afternoon in Chile.
Indeed, for Nadal, the reality of returning to tournament action after being away for seven months due to problems with his perpetually aching knees is that he will need time to get back into playing shape. For no matter how good Nadal looked in spots throughout the last week at the VTR Open in Vina del Mar, there were signs that Nadal was clearly weeks – or months – away from his top form.
But all credit as well goes to Zeballos, as he played the match of his life during the hard fought, 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-4 triumph - and he nearly said as much after his victory, declaring, “it's a dream for me. 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.” And he brought a unique combination of being a lefty – one of the few on tour aside from Nadal – who also hits his groundstrokes flat, which has always given Nadal a degree of difficulty. Zeballos also maintained a more aggressive posture throughout and had Nadal under constant pressure.
Nadal has taken time off due to injuries at other periods during his brilliant career and has come back even stronger - most notably in 2009 when he missed Wimbledon and played with injuries throughout the remainder of that season. He then followed up that rough year with an extraordinary 2010 that saw him capture three Slam titles.
But though he’s still only 26, one has the distinct sense that this comeback is different, that it’s going to be much more arduous for the man universally regarded as the finest player ever on the red dirt. Missing a month or two and one Slam, as was the case in 2009, is one thing. But by the time Nadal plays in Indian Wells and Miami, the two high-profile hard court events in March, it will have been nearly 10 months since he will have played against the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Roger Federer.
Will Nadal’s nerves hold up when he finally takes on his fierce rivals? Does the loss to such a lower-ranked player diminish Nadal’s confidence level?
These questions that will linger are part of the reason why Nadal is playing an intensely busy schedule in this usually vacant time on the tennis calendar. He’s back in action this week in Sao Paulo and then will play in Acapulco later in February. If Nadal doesn’t capture one of the next two events on his beloved clay, against much weaker competition than he’s normally accustomed to, the questions may well morph into doubts. And when doubt enters into a tennis player’s always-fragile psyche, all bets are off.
First things first though. There was much in his four matches played this last week that bode well for Nadal. Not least of which was his serve. While he’s still not serving as hard as he did back in 2010, Nadal hit many effective serves out wide in the deuce court and down the middle in the ad court, a strategy that many have implored the Spaniard to adopt. I’d look for Nadal to continue to tinker with his serve in advance of the intense battles to come in the next few months against his top foes, especially Murray and Djokovic, who each possess incredible return games.
Additionally, Nadal took chances on his return, especially on the backhand side and also hit balls on the rise more frequently than one is used to seeing. These are strategies that I’ll expect Nadal to implement on a regular basis as a way of shortening points as he switches from a grinding, physically exhausting style of play to one of increased – yet selective – aggression. It is absooutely necessary for Nadal to shift his game now, in order to maximize another year or two of peak tennis.
The aspects of Nadal’s game that looked rusty were not all that surprising; he was beaten on many drop shots, as his vertical movement is still not there yet and he left too many lopping groundstrokes in the middle of the court, which proved to be easy pickings for a flat hitter like Zeballos. But these weaknesses displayed by Nadal will likely fade once he rounds himself into top form.
Of course none of these early tournaments on his road back to recovery matter much in the grand scheme. Nadal will not be satisfied with the state of things until – and if - he’s playing in the French Open final on the second Sunday in June.
And it bears reminding again that even for those who think that Nadal’s body is breaking down, that he’ll never be back to 100 percent, that his career will be cut short, or that he’ll only be effective on clay, etc … if he wins a Slam this year, he’ll become the first player in history to record a Slam victory in nine consecutive years. And I wouldn’t bet against it.