Little-known lefty Horacio Zeballos did the unthinkable Sunday stunning King of Clay Rafael Nadal 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-4 in the Vina Del Mar final. It was suppose to be Nadal’s crowning return to tennis after a seven month layoff, playing a lowly ATP 250 event, but Zeballos wasn’t playing along with the story, instead turning the tables to capture his first career ATP title. And beating Rafa to do it!
“It’s a dream for me,” the 27-year-old Zeballos said after the 2-hour, 46-minute shocker. “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.”
Despite having won just seven games in their only prior meeting at the 2010 French Open and never having beaten a Top 10 player, the world No. 73 Argentine didn’t succumb to Nadal’s aura. Zeballos hung in with Nadal from the ground early on, going toe-to-toe with the clay king with a ripping one-handed backhand and a steady forehand, backed-up by an very decent serve. After dropping the first in a tough breaker, Zeballos held on to win a tight second set tiebreak.
After two sets of no-break tennis, the two traded early breaks in the third. From there Zeballos was just the better player, eventually breaking Nadal at love to win the match.
Zeballos joins Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as the only players to ever beat Nadal in a clay final, and becomes just the second lefty after Fernando Verdasco to defeat him on his favorite dirt.
“I’ve worked really hard because I really wanted to be at this level. For some months, I’ve been playing at a high level and I think I’m at the best moment of my career,” Zeballos said. “I’m very strong physically and psychologically.”
Zeballos is also the first Argentine player to beat Nadal on clay since former French Open champion Gaston Gaudio beat an 18-year-old Rafa at Buenos Aires in 2005.
After a dissapointing loss in the singles, Nadal had the opportunisty to still come away with Sunday hardware. But he and friend Juan Monaco were turned away in the doubles final by Italians Lorenzi and Starache.
Playing his first event in seven months because of the knee, Rafa still took away the positives.
“It was a great tournament for me,” Nadal said. “If we take everything, it was positive. It’s true I wanted to win the final but in wasn’t possible. He made things better than me and I didn’t play my best match. I just need to keep working, practicing with hope, motivation and the right attitude to have better sensations every week. I hope it’s the beginning of a lot of good things for me.”
Nadal’s comeback tour now moves to Brazil where he’ll have a bye before his first match in Sao Paulo.
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