Following a decade of playing professional tennis, Horacio Zeballos finally has his first pro title… And he earned it by defeating the King of Clay.
The 27-year-old Argentine tennis player defeated Rafael Nadal – back on the tour after a seventh month hiatus due to an injured left knee – in the finals at the Chilean Open 7-6 (2), 6-7 (6), 6-4 for his first title on any surface, looking every bit the equal of the seven-time French Open champion.
Nadal was the overwhelming favorite at the tournament, where he was shooting for this 37th title on clay. He said just being able to play tennis again was some reward.
“It was a week when we didn’t know how the body would respond, the knee,” said Nadal. “At least we have seen we can compete up to a certain level. It’s true I have had good days and bad days that impact on my play.”
It was only the fifth loss for Nadal in a singles final 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,” said 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.”
Zeballos said the two chatted briefly, and Nadal offered some advice.
“He told me: ‘Enjoy this title, this is your first, so just enjoy it,’ ” said Zeballos.
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.
Zeballos joined some pretty exclusive company on Sunday. He joined Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer as the only players to beat Rafael Nadal in the final of a clay-court event. Nadal also had won 15 straight matches on clay.
Meanwhile, 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.