Rafael Nadal’s Comeback is Still On Track But Just Not the Fast Track

Credit Zeballos

Horacio Zeballos of Argentina won the biggest match of his life by defeating Rafael Nadal 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 to win in Vina del Mar, Chile.  Zeballos also defeated a cast of solid clay court players to reach the final by dispatching Pablo Andujar, Albert Ramos and Carlos Berlocq in succession.  Still, unless he had defeated Jim Courier, Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg to reach the final round, Zeballos could not match the clay court achievement of defeating Rafael Nadal on clay with 3 other solid wins.  The 27 year old from Argentina should treasure this victory.  It was Nadal’s first loss on red clay since losing to Novak Djokovic at the 2011 installment of  Rome.  Zeballos is also the first left-handed player to defeat Nadal on red clay.*  His lefty forehand created nice angles against Rafa, and oddly, his one-handed backhand allowed for him to change the pace and spin during rallies in a manner that right-handed players with one-handed backhands have not been able to do against Rafa with any measure of success.

No Need to Panic for Team Rafa

Rafael Nadal won the first seven sets he played after a long time away from competitive tennis.  The two sets he lost were both close.  Also, the lefty Zeballos’ hitting a forehand from the corner that Nadal normally pins right-handed opponents cannot be underestimated.  Closing out sets, matches and tournaments can illicit some nerves from even great players.  Rafa will not roar back with a tournament title, but getting four matches under his belt is a good way to reintroduce himself to the tour.  Playing the Latin American swing for the first time since 2005 allows for Nadal to work these kinks out prior to Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Paris.

Nadal’s Win over Chardy was Encouraging

Jeremy Chardy entered this event with the momentum of his first Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance.  Chardy has a big inside-out forehand and a decent enough serve to win games against most players.  I expected Nadal to beat Chardy but by a score of something around 7-5, 6-3 or 6-4, 6-4.  Instead Nadal rolled Chardy 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinal round.  After Saturday’s results, I was expecting to be writing about Nadal as a force of nature on clay.  Instead, a fit and feisty opponent won a tight match against Rafa.

Play Long Points Against Rafa?

With the exception of Nole winning two consecutive matches in 2011, no one has had a consistent winning approach against Rafael Nadal on clay.  Obviously, some players will try to follow the JMDP, Soderling, Berdych’s approach of hitting through Nadal.  It hasn’t worked often (Soderling at the 2009 French Open), but a tall player has limited options against Nadal on clay.  Djokovic’s approach in 2011 was to pressure Rafa’s service game as much as possible.  It is a good approach if one returns anywhere near as well as Nole, but even the world number one could not repeat those results in 2012.  Maybe Rafa’s knees and other health ailments will encourage defensive players and counter-punchers to try to wear Rafa down and draw unforced errors from Nadal.  If a player can keep the score close versus a favorite, scoreboard pressure can also be an asset for the underdog.  It is a strategy that worked in February, but my guess is it will be less successful in June.

* Nadal did lose a match on blue clay in 2012 to the left-handed Fernando Verdasco

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