VINA DEL MAR, Chile -- Rafael Nadal lost to Horacio Zeballos in three sets in the VTR Open final on Sunday, settling for a runner-up finish in his first tournament after being sidelined for seventh months with a left knee injury.
Nadal was an overwhelming favorite, shooting for this 37th singles title on clay. But Zeballos won 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-4 for his first title on any surface, looking every bit the equal of the seven-time French Open champion.
It was only the fifth singles final that Nadal has lost on clay.
Zeballos matched Nadal shot for shot with no service breaks until the third set, dropping to his back on the red clay surface after winning.
"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."
Nadal spoke briefly after the match, and then prepared to play the doubles final with partner Juan Monaco against the Italian pair of Paolo Lorenzi and Potito Starace.
"It has been one of the most beautiful weeks lately for me after being unable to experience something like this for long time," Nadal said. "The fact I am here has been a triumph."
Nadal had most of the support, with fans waving Spanish flags and some wearing T-shirts saying "Vamos Rafa" and "Viva Espana." The Spaniard has been treated like a native since arriving in Chile for his comeback tournament.
Nadal plays again this week in the Brazil Open in Sao Paulo, and later this month on clay in Acapulo, Mexico -- all aimed at getting him ready for a run at this eighth French Open title.
Nadal had not dropped a set all week until the final. But he has consistently said his comeback might be a slow one, needing time to regain his speed and match fitness. The knee still bothers him, and he has warned it might be several months before it's clear if the non-surgical treatment has been effective.
The first set went to a tiebreaker. Zeballos kept Nadal off balance with his serve and hit the corners, but the Spaniard held on to take the lead in the match.
Zeballos would not be denied. He outplayed Nadal in the second set, taking the tiebreaker 8-6. Zeballos then raised both hands at the net and stared directly at Nadal.
Zeballos was broken in the first game in the final set, but broke back in the next game and then took the match, breaking Nadal again in the 10th game.
Nadal's last match before this tournament was a loss last year in the second round of Wimbledon to little-known Czech player Lukas Rosol.
This one was similarly surprising. They had met in the 2010 French Open, with Nadal winning 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.
Nadal has $50 million in tour earnings, and Zeballos has won $1.3 million -- an indication of the gulf between them. Nadal also had won 15 straight matches on clay.