On Sunday, many were those who thought that Rafael Nadal, who was coming back from a seven-month injury layoff due to his recurrent knee issues, would make short work of Horacio Zeballos in the VTR Open final.
However, it was clear from the beginning that the Argentine had taken the court with absolutely nothing to lose and determined to enjoy his second career final as much as he could, especially considering that, in front of him, was standing the best clay-court player in history.
It showed as quick as the first games of the match: Zeballos was attacking from all angles, particularly from the backhand side, which Nadal was relentlessly pummelling, hoping that this wing would crack at some point. It did not.
Nadal had to fend off some break points early on in the match, but he did so in a splendid manner, and the rest of the first set was pretty tight, Zeballos holding his ground and keeping the pressure on his famous rival.
The tiebreak was all in the favour of the Mallorcan, and the guesses were strong as to how few games Zeballos would win in the second set.
The Argentine, however, had no intention of giving up and folding meekly. Instead, he fought on, aiming at the lines and painting them with brilliant shots that left his rival, at times, without answers. Saving some break points of his own, he hung on and at his third set point of the tiebreak, he took the match to a deciding set.
The first game of the decider gave all appearances that it would go the King of Clay’s way, as Nadal quickly broke Zeballos to love, but the break was short-lived as the lefty from Mar del Plata broke right back, keeping the match as tight as possible and continuing to try and keep the rallies short as much as he could.
In the 10th game, the impossible happened. With Nadal serving to stay in the final, Zeballos kept the pressure on, and quickly gave himself three championship points. Just one was enough, as a netted forehand from the Spaniard had Zeballos collapsing, in tears, to the ground, a 6-7(2) 7-6(6) 6-4 winner in Viña Del Mar.
Horacio Zeballos’s first career title, at his second final, could not come in a more dream-like way. All through the match, he played toe to toe with one of the best players, and he earned the right to become only the third player to defeat Rafael Nadal in a clay final, after Roger Federer (twice) and Novak Djokovic (twice).
This title also made the Argentine jump 30 spots in the world’s rankings to no 43, only two places short of his career best, reached in 2009, when he was voted ATP’s Newcomer of the Year.
Perhaps Nadal was not at his sharpest. Perhaps. He still made the final and had reached it without dropping a set. No. All the credit goes to Zeballos, who came into the match with the intent to enjoy it, and left a winner. Like a dream.
“I wish this moment could stop in time and never end, but if it stops, I will for sure remember it my whole life.”
-Horacio Zeballos to the ATP World Tour
Furthermore, his aggressive game, when it works, is a real pleasure to watch, and he kept everyone on the edge of their seats throughout the whole match.
Difficult not to rejoice for him, and let’s hope that this title is the first of many for the 27-year-old. For now, it appears that the hardships of the last couple of years are finally behind him. At last.
(Photo: Getty Images)