February 11, 2013


It's not very often that Rafael Nadal loses on clay.

Dropping just one match in forty-six rounds at Roland Garros, holding a record eight trophies in Monte Carlo, claiming thirty-six of his forty-nine titles on dirt, and winning ninety-three percent of the time he hits the surface, it's no wonder so many consider the Spaniard to be the King of Clay.

This weekend, though, the sovereign fell victim to a bit of an uprising.

Obviously there were question marks hanging over Rafa's head coming into the 2013 season -- missing from Tour the last seven-plus months, no one really knew what to expect when he finally made his return as a wildcard in Viña del Mar. Would he be just as dominant on the dirt as he'd been before his knee injury? Would he stumble early and eventually regain his footing, or would he come out of the gates swinging? Would he be able to carry his successes onto other surfaces, or would he never return to the top spot he'd occupied for a total of nearly two years?

The last time he played on the Golden Swing was 2005, way before most casual tennis fans had heard his name, but as the top seed in Chile and with just one other player in the top twenty making the trip south of the border, it seemed like a smart and low-pressure way to get back in the groove. And with his performance early during the week, it certainly looked as though he was primed to pick up just where he left off. He glided through his early rounds, losing serve just once and even dismissing Melbourne Cinderella Jeremy Chardy in two easy sets.

But his luck would change in Sunday's final. Argentina's Horacio Zeballos had been a standout way back in 2009, but had failed to follow through on earlier success. Now twenty-seven, he was ranked #73 in the world when he came down to the VTR Open and hadn't won a match in a Tour-level event's main draw since last year's French Open. He was tested from the start last week, too -- he lost his opening set to qualifier Diego Sebastian Schwartzman and needed to go the distance to pass Albert Ramos in the quarters. But he was the tougher player against Rafa when it most counted -- in the nearly three hour match, Zeballos came back after losing the first set, forced a third by winning a tiebreak, and got the deciding break at last to clinch the win. It was Nadal's only loss to a left-hander on clay and just the fifth time in his career he'd dropped a championship match on dirt -- all the others came at the hands of either Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer.

On the surface it was kind of a disappointing end to a much-anticipated comeback, but there were a lot of positives to take away from his performance in Chile, as well. Including his run to the doubles final, Nadal played nine matches last week, and with some easy wins interspersed with a couple grinding marathons, it seems his body is ready for more challenges this season. We'll get an even better idea of where he stands when we makes his way to Sao Paulo this week, but the bigger test will be what he can do when he hits the surfaces on which he's less comfortable.

It could be a long road back for the Spaniard, but Rafael Nadal is nothing if not a fighter, and he'll not let go of his kingdom easily at all. It's too soon to call an end to his reign based on this one loss, and something tells me we'll soon see how much he's willing and able to defend his realm.

Until then it seems the best course of action is for everyone to keep calm and carry on. The King may be slightly bruised and battered, but you can be sure he hasn't quite abdicated his throne.

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