Horacio Zeballos Jr. is not a star. He never will be. The 27-year-old Argentinian had appeared in one final prior to Sunday’s match and that was four years ago (he lost). Horacio made it to the second round of a Grand Slam three times. After winning the 2009 ATP Newcomer of the year award he sat at number 73 in the rankings.
A fan of ping pong, music and swimming, Zeballos isn’t mentioned on Mar Del Plata’s — his hometown — Wikipedia page. 80% of the crowd in Viña del Mar didn’t know who Horacio Zeballos was. Sunday wasn’t supposed to be about him. If anything, it would be about his role in providing an answer to the question everyone is asking: Is Rafael Nadal ever really going to be back?
We didn’t get an answer on Sunday. Nadal fell to Zeballos in three sets, a result that isn’t an indication of anything, really. The underdog served incredibly well in the first set, dropping only four points on his serve until the tiebreak. There, Nadal asserted himself, waiting for Zeballos to make the errors players of his ilk make when the pressure is on. We saw the patented Rafa fist bump. The ‘are we still doing this face’ when looking at his Uncle in the crowd. It wasn’t a reach to suggest Nadal would coast to an easy victory in the second set. His opponent referred to him as god before the match.
That didn’t happen. Nadal’s level dropped. Thrown off by playing a fellow lefty for the first time in the tournament, the Spaniard couldn’t capitalize on a couple shaky games from Zeballos to open the second stanza. The Argentinian’s prodigious first serve percentage dropped, yet Nadal won just 29% of points on his counterpart’s second serve. The second set went to another tiebreak. Once again Nadal was content to sit back and wait for mistakes. This time they didn’t come. Zeballos began dictating from the baseline, employing a silky one handed backhand that was catching lines and forcing Nadal into losing positions on the court. Horacio took the second set and pointed skyward. Shout out to the other god.
They traded breaks to start the final set. Just when it seemed as though Nadal would finally kill Zeballos’ resolve, the 26-year old with the wonky knees capitulated.
“This is the game of my life,” Zeballos said. “Playing against the best player of all-time, or one of the best in the history of tennis. It’s a dream, unforgettable. I will never forget this moment.”
We watched for Rafa but Zeballos made us stay. For one moment, the man who had earned $1.3 million to Nadal’s $50 million was god. This match wasn’t a referendum on Nadal’s future. Making the final after a seven month layoff is remarkable. After the trophy presentation he appeared upbeat, exalting his week in Chile. Physically he looked fine. Toni Nadal says his nephew’s knee pain is fading by the day.
Nadal has four months to get ready before defending his French Open title. This week he’ll play in Sao Paolo before heading to Acapulco. The fact that his schedule is so packed is an encouraging sign for fans concerned about his ability to hold up. One way or another we’ll know where the greatest clay court player of all time is fitness wise. As Tennis.com’s Steve Tignor states, this loss was a sign of mental rust. The mental aspect of tennis is what separates the best from the also-rans. It’s what has made Nadal the player he is today.
Instead of lamenting Nadal’s loss on Sunday, let’s celebrate Horacio Zeballos. He joins Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as the only players to beat Rafa in a final on clay. Not bad company. He took on one of his gods and won. That’s pretty damn cool.