You didn’t really expect Rafael Nadal to win his first tournament back after seven months away, did you?
I have to say: I did. Yes, there were reasons to doubt it through the week in Viña del Mar. “The knee” and “the body,” as Rafa said, remained question marks. His first step wasn’t as quick as we remembered, especially when he went after a drop shot. And there was a layer of rust—thin, but noticeable—on most of what he did. But this was clay, this was Rafa, and there wasn’t a whole lot, draw-wise, that appeared to stand in his way. By the time he had won his third match in straight sets, and stood ready to serve in the final against 73rd-ranked Horacio Zeballos, a man with fewer career match wins (33) than Nadal has career titles on clay alone (36), I’ll bet you were thinking that Rafa was going to win his first tournament back as well.
Maybe it was a sign that things weren’t going to go exactly as planned that Nadal double-faulted on that first serve of the match. More likely the real sign of trouble came in the next game, when Zeballos hit three straight aces to hold. The Argentine has a reputation as a doubles player, but was unheralded in singles; at the U.S. Open last year, he lost in the first round of the qualies to 188th-ranked Yuki Bhambri. And if his description of the Viña del Mar final as a match that he would be playing against “God” was any indication, some part of him was intimidated about going up against Rafa. But he never showed it, or played like it. Zeballos wouldn’t face a break point until the second set, and wouldn’t be broken until the third.
It was close all the way, and much of the time Zeballos was the dominant presence on serve and at the baseline; Rafa managed to win just 29 percent of points on the Argentine’s second serve. Still, Nadal did what we expected. He upped his game to win the first set tiebreaker, and played his best point of the match to save a set point in the second-set breaker. After a wild up-and-back rally, Rafa stunned Zeballos with a backhand drop shot that brought the crowd to its feet. “Ah ha!” they might have thought—there was a vintage Nadal point at last, scrambling effort with a tactical twist on top. When Rafa leveled at 6-6 on the next point, Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob said what many of us thought: Zeballos had reached ze end.
It turned out that Rafa hadn’t shaken off the rust completely, and you could see it—thin but noticeable, and costly—on the next point. The pros like to talk about “hitting their spots” with their serves. You and I are happy to get ours in, and we aim, in a general way, for one corner or the other. They think in terms of inch-specific locations. Suffice it to say that, at 6-6, Nadal didn’t hit his spot with his first serve. And Zeballos didn't let him get away with it. He knocked off a backhand return winner and followed it up with a forehand winner for the set.
Nadal likes to talk about how little separates pros of seemingly very different levels, and that what does separate them is mostly mental. This moment, and this match, showed again what he means. Rafa wasn’t at his best, with his return game, his movement, or his court positioning. Afterward, he chalked much of it up to the physical deficiencies that come with being away for so long.
“I lack reaction speed,” he said, “energy when returning, power in my legs so that the ball goes deeper.”
None of which went unnoticed by Zeballos. “Not playing has hurt him,” he said. “Four or five tournaments back should get him back in form. I’d say this was the perfect time to play Rafa considering the confidence factor and everything.”
(OK, so maybe Nadal's not God; God would almost certainly be back in form in three tournaments, not a lazy “four or five.”)
To me, though, Nadal’s loss looked as much about mental rust as physical. You have to learn to run your fastest and smack your forehand and stand your ground at the baseline again, but you also have to learn to win again. It’s a different, and more difficult, challenge to get over that final hump than it is simply to play good tennis. There’s no way to explain how to close out a match or find your way out of tricky circumstances; the only way to learn is to do it over and over. We’ve seen Nadal extricate himself from matches like these many times; almost every time on clay. But he didn’t have that finishing ooomph, that brain-muscle memory we call confidence, this time. Credit Zeballos for recognizing that, and seizing his chance. He came in riding his own 14-match clay-court win streak, and he played with the calmness of someone who has been doing a lot of winning lately.
With this victory, Zeballos is up to No. 43. I think, and hope, we'll see more of his game, which has a mix of the workmanlike and the stylish, over the course of the spring. Whether he continues his upward trajectory or not, this win guarantees him some immortality. Now there are three players in history who have beaten Nadal in a final on clay: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Horacio Zeballos.
Nadal’s comeback tournament was still a success, and he said afterward that just being there was the most important thing. We might have expected him to win, but nobody could be shocked that he didn’t. It might even be better, in terms of him working his way back and peaking at the right time in the spring, that he didn’t win immediately, that he still has things he knows he needs to improve. The desire to go one step farther will still be there as well. I liked that Nadal began the week saying that it wouldn’t be a big deal if he lost here, but by the third set of the final he was doubled-over and “Vamos!”ing like a madman after every big point he won. The desire to win, not just play, was back, and he couldn’t ignore it.
“The tennis aspect wasn’t the most important thing,” Nadal said afterward. “The important thing is be out there again in front of fans. But I won’t deny I wanted to win here.”
Whatever the result, the tennis world has seen Rafael Nadal again. Do we know what we missed during his time away? I'd say we knew it when he hit that drop shot to save set point in the second set. We knew it when he stretched for a seemingly impossible drop volley to save a break point late in the third. And we knew it when he sat down on the sideline looking grim in defeat. Winning or losing, Nadal has a way of drawing emotion out of tennis. Few players have ever had the knack for getting involved in memorable matches the way he has, and he was part of another in his first tournament back. Nadal's not the only one, of course; we've had plenty of emotion while he was away. Now that Rafa is back, we’ll have more of it.