Wondering If Rafa Will Ever Be Rafa Again

Rafael Nadal returned to tennis this week in Chile and as many pundits forecasted, he was not in peak form. In fact he was far from it. Horacio Zeballos, a journeyman from Argentina, played the match of his life to stun Nadal 67 76 64 to collect his first ATP singles title.

Zeballos, who cried tears of joy and fell on his back like he won a Grand Slam title after match point, wowed the packed stadium of Chileans with some spectacular shots to close out Nadal, who appeared to lack penetration from the baseline and his movement seems to be missing a fraction of speed and zip, especially on the wide balls.

Zeballos struggled to finish off Berlocq in the semi but in today’s final, with the stakes much greater, ironically, he performed like an experienced champion, stunning Nadal with a delicate drop shot and damaging, angled shots from the baseline which Nadal simply could not handle or reach. Zeballos actually won the final six points of the match. Sure, Rafa may have temporarily forgotten the intricacies involved in how to close out pressure matches but to get blown away in the home stretch by Zeballos was rather shocking to witness.

Or perhaps, it’s an ominous sign. Maybe Nadal may have lost his mojo in the long, seven-month hiatus since Wimbledon. With that unreliable knee, he might have lost a crucial half-step of speed. In boxing and tennis speed is power and speed kills, that iota of speed, reflexes or anticipation could be what separates the former King of Clay from ever ruling the throne again.

I expected Nadal to be fully prepared to play top-notch tennis in Chile and to win the title over a non-descript field, for two reasons, he’s Rafa Nadal and he’s had plenty of time to prepare. Remember, Monica Seles came back after about two years away from pro matches and in her first WTA event back she won in Toronto and then made the finals at the US Open, losing in three sets to Graf.

This result in Vina Del Mar could be a troubling sign for Nadal’s future in 2013 and beyond. We really don’t know if Rafa will regain his former mastery. And nobody is going to let him without a fight. All the other ATP players will have seen what Zeballos did to Rafa in Chile, and they will hardly have any mercy for Nadal when they get their chance to knock off the former ATP #1.

Rafa Nadal made his first steps back to professional tennis but the journey will be a very long one to regain his post at the ATP mountaintop.


  • Scoop Malinowski · February 10, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    (Artwork by Stephen Burkett.)

  • Mitch · February 10, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    I wouldn’t put too much weight on this loss. Remember when Rafa came back after taking time off following his loss to Soderling at the French Open? He couldn’t get his mojo back for the rest of the year, dropped to 4 in the rankings, then won 3 slams and got back to #1 in the rankings. It’s possible that Rafa won’t be Rafa again, but too soon to even think about writing him off.

  • mat4 · February 11, 2013 at 6:15 am

    I don’t think that the situation is the same. In 2009, Rafa came back to play tournaments on hard, and lost, most of the time, to power players, or players better than he is on that surface: he lost to Del Potro, Cilic, Davydenko, Djokovic before the WTF. But DelPo won the USO, Cilic was in the best form of his life, Davydenko won the WTF and Shanghai, Djokovic won Paris, Beijing, played the final in Shanghai.

    So, I believe that the situation is quite different. Rafa started to be a dominant hard court player in 2010, IMHO, not before, especially on fast surfaces. In 2009, he just wasn’t that good. His results the previous years were not better.

    I am not sure that the defeat against Zeballos has a real signification, but it could be. We will see in the next few months.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 11, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Excuse me, of course, losing to Zeballos has significance. This is Nadal and some second-tier Argentinian, ON CLAY, Rafa should’ve beaten this guy love and 2. The fact that he lost to him means his chances of beating Djokovic on clay are slim and none. Maybe even finally, Federer will knock Rafa off on clay.

    You can only play with the piper so many times. Rafa is 26 now and his body has taken a beating. We’ll see in Indian Wells and Miami, but this is not a good omen.

    BTW, did you see Federer is not playing Miami. Maybe the back to back with IW convinced him to bypass it, but I know people who usually travel to Miami for the event who are not going because Roger’s not in the draw. All the more reason to come to Delray, where I will be for the first few days of the event, Mon-Weds, and I believe Scoop will be there for the whole week. Bring your racquet and hit a few balls with Scoop and me.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 7:28 am

    Mitch, this loss is startling, imagine what the score would have been if they met first round at Roland Garros last year? 61 61 62 or something. It’s going to be hard for Rafa to regain his aura of invincibility now. If a guy like Zeballos can take him down like this, what do you think players like Murray, Djokovic, Federer, Ferrer, will do to him? I see hard times ahead for Rafa. But if anyone can find a way it’s Rafa.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Mat4, Losing to Zeballos in this manner has got to be a dissappointment for the Nadal camp despite that they publicly lowered expectations. When Muhammad Ali came back after three years he beat Jerry Quarry handily. Zeballos is not even a top 15 contender like Quarry was and Rafa couldn’t handle him. I know the comparison is rather a stretch but I just think Rafa has got to take care of business with a guy like Zeballos. Then again, tennis is different. Even Agassi lost the final of that Challenger in Vegas after his hiatus from tennis. Maybe this is like Agassi’s loss. Anybody remember who Agassi lost to in that Vegas Challenger final?

  • Steve · February 11, 2013 at 7:55 am

    Two things. Nadal is just coming back and is not 100% yet he makes a final. Pretty good, I’d say.

    Secondly, it was an awkward match-up. No on hates playing a lefty more than a lefty and Zeballos was ripping his one-hander.

    So considering all this it’s not shocking at all.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 11, 2013 at 8:28 am

    The famous Christian Vinck, who was also a lefty. But Agassi was No. 141 at the time, not No. 4 like Rafa. No, this is just another interesting story in this year’s narrative: Will Djoko win slam? Will Murray go back to being a doormat or will he win another slam? Has Roger gone south permanently? Will Rafa recover and still win RG and compete for No. 1 again? Will PED’s kill the game?

    Those are the five biggest storylines to this early season. Does anyone have another interesting story line?

  • Steve · February 11, 2013 at 8:43 am

    I think another story is the Tomic story. Scoop has made HUGE predictions but I truly don’t see him as any better than Bellucci & many others.

    Is he mistaking junk for talent? Or are the rest of not seeing some genius in his variety???

  • Dan Markowitz · February 11, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Definitely, Steve, we agree. As soon as I wrote that last post I thought about Tomic. For me, and I’m only talking about the men here, Tomic because of his braggadocio and his flashing feats of brilliance, is the only player who’s story line is as compelling as the Big 4’s.

    From a strictly American perspective, I’d say Fish’s story with the bad heart and the anxiety problems at his level of the game is also interesting. Will this waylay his career or like a Phoenix, will he rise once more?

  • Steve · February 11, 2013 at 9:54 am

    …and the French have replaced Spain as the dominant country in tennis in terms of numbers. They seem to be everywhere.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 10:09 am

    He made Zeballos look like a top 10 player. Or did Zeballos make Nadal look like a guy ranked around 100? Whatever the answer is, the next two tourneys for Rafa are very important. One thing I really like about this story is that now Rafa is perhaps more compelling and intriguing than ever before — or since the time he first burst onto the scene as a teen. We are entering a new stage in the career of Rafa.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Djokovic winning a Grand Slam this year looks more and more possible with each passing month. I think it will help his cause that the fans and media will focus on Rafa’s comeback which will alleviate some of the pressure on Djokovic. Other than Djokovic and Rafa, Murray and Fed, there really is not much else other than Sloane Stephens, maybe the new Chilean 16 yr old Christian Garin, Tomic, Gasquet. The ATP needs a new face to get people talking, Ferrer and Delpo and Berd and Tips seem to have hit their plateaus.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Steve, Tomic has made the QF of a major at 18 and was a set up on Djokovic. Bellucci or any of the other younger players have not shown that kind of achievement yet. I think you are underestimating Tomic.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Christian Vinck – I think I remember Paul Goldstein told me he beat Vinck like 0 and 0 in Copenhagen for a Biofile.

  • Steve · February 11, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Scoop, let us know when Tomic is #1 as you predicted. :-) Bellucci beat him with superior strokes and power.
    Tomic surprised people at first by being a very tall guy that didn’t use power. We know you like his cockiness but let’s see him go top 10. Maybe some day, when Fed is in his 40s he’ll have his moment.

  • Steve · February 11, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Is Paul Goldstein related to Adam Sandler??? Separated at birth???

  • Steve · February 11, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Tomic just downed by baby Fed as if to underline the buzz kill.

  • Steve · February 11, 2013 at 11:17 am

    …and Zeballos is ranked higher than Tomic which makes perfect sense.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Losing to Dimitrov is by no means a bad loss for Tomic who has not played since Australia. Bellucci beating Dimitrov could be comparable someday to Fed losing to Horna )

  • Steve · February 11, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Scoop, so you think the rankings are fixed. That Bellucci is accidentally higher. Or some other excuse???

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Tomic will be the better player when all is said and done IMO Steve, though you can’t rule out that Bellucci could become a Verdasco and suddenly become a top 10 beast of a player, maybe this win over Isner will do wonders for his self belief.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Speaking of upsets, one comparable to Zeballos over Nadal was some guy named Buster Dougas over Mike Tyson exactly 23 years ago. I interviewed Buster about it…


  • Tom Michael · February 12, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Horacio Zeballos is a good player. I saw him lose to Nadal in Roland Garros in 2010 and even though the score seemed one-sided, the match was not. He was standing toe to toe with him in that match. So I was concerned that he could win this past Sunday with Rafa being rusty. And he did. BTW, I believe that Zeballos has enough game to upset someone in the top 10 in Roland Garros if he happens to reach that stage this year.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Um, Tom, you are aware of the fact that Zeballos has won a total of 2 matches at Roland Garros in his career and he’s 27, right? Zeballos is going to beat a Top 10 player at RG over 5 sets? Are you kidding me? Look, I’ve seen Zeballos play, too, at the Open, and he’s pretty good. In fact, he’s at his career-high now, I believe, at #43, but this guy has beaten 2 guys at RG, one ranked #190 and the other, #115.

    Unless you know something about Zeballos making a great run to the top now at 27, or he’s Argentinian, so maybe he’s taking a great strain of steroids, but otherwise, there’s slim and no chance this guy could beat a Top 10 player at RG.

  • Mitch · February 12, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    I don’t disagree with you Dan, but keep in mind that Soderling had only won 3 matches at the French Open before he went on his back to back runs to the final. He was a couple of years younger then than Zeballos is now, and a better player to begin with. I think it’s more likely that he’ll just fade back to the challenger tour again, but anything is possible.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 12, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Didn’t know that, Mitch, that Soderling had only won 3 matches, but I know he was more of an indoors player. Look, I like Zeballos, beautiful one-handed backhand, but you don’t go from playing in 2 French Open’s to knocking out a Top 10 player at 27. That just doesn’t happen in pro tennis. Soderling had probably played in far more than 2 RG’s before he made his run, as improbable as it was.

  • Tom Michael · February 12, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    Actually if his ranking stays out of the top 32, he can potentially meet a top 10 player in the first round, and knock him out. And when a player wins his first title, the floodgates of confidence opens. It does not matter what he failed to do in the past.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 13, 2013 at 12:42 am

    A man becomes a different person once he becomes a champion. For a boxer or a tennis player. It changes something in the person – to be a champion. Agree with Tom, I would not count out Zeballos from beating a top 10 player at the FO, absolutely not, anything is possible for him now.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 13, 2013 at 7:54 am

    This is the same guy who bet me Gilles Simon would reach two slam semis! Zeballos hasn’t gotten out of the second round of the FO. The only top 10 player he’ll beat would be an Isner and he isn’t even in top 10 anymore. Keep in mind, this is a guy who’s won 3 slam matches and he’s turning 28. You guys are dreaming. If Zeballos ever beats a Top 10 player at any slam, I’ll walk naked through Flushing Meadows.

    I thought Zeballos would have a breakout when he qualied at the US Open in 2009 and won in first round. You know how many matches Zebo has won at the Open since–Zero.

    Let’s talk about a real comer–Tim Smycek, who beat Verdasco yesterday in San Jose.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 13, 2013 at 9:08 am

    But a win like Zeballos scored over Nadal is going to change him as a player. He’s a new player with a new confidence and belief now Dan. He’s an ATP champion. He’s not a challenger or contender or journeyman, he is a champion. I’m with Tom on this, I think Zeballos is going to post more remarkable results like he just did in Chile. Smyczek is a tough player, he hung with Ferrer in Australia, his name just keeps popping up in tournaments, he’s obviously on the upswing. However Smyczek is not an ATP champion yet and I don’t recall him ever coming close.

  • Steve · February 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Some players are late bloomers and 26 isn’t old anymore in tennis. Have to think this win will build some belief. As Nadal says in his book it’s the mental aspect more than anything else that separates the top players from each other.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Alright, I’ll up the ante. If Zeballos beats a Top 10 player in any slam, I’ll walk the grounds of Flushing Meadow naked, and singing/sighing, “Horacio, my hero!”

    Secondly, Zeballos is turning 28 in less than 2 months.

    Thirdly, Spadea beat Roddick and Kiefer to win his first and only tournament at the Scottsdale Open in 2004 at 29. I think that’s more impressive than beating Berloq and an out-of-form Nadal. How many more finals did Spadea reach, 2. How many did he win, even when he faced Ricardo Mello in Delray and was serving for match against Rusedski in Newport, zero!

    You would admit Spadea is a better player than Zeballos, would you not? Just because Zebo won the Chilean Open doesn’t mean he’s going to break down doors now that he never broke down before.

  • Steve · February 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Well, take Mardy Fish. He did make an AO QF in 2007 but was much better in his late 20s.

  • Dan Markowitz · February 13, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    C’mon, are you comparing Fish, a guy who’d been Top 20 before, with Zeballos?! You guys make too big a leap. Even a guy like Soderling had much more credentials than Zebo. The guy is a Challenger player who’s gotten into Top 50 by probably doing well in the Challengers and playing mostly clay events. He’s not Fish or Stepanek or Sody.

  • Steve · February 13, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Well, you were discounting him because of his age in the previous post.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 13, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Zeballos has won the same amount of ATP singles titles as Vince and he may get more. Beating Rafa in a final is far more impressive than beating Kiefer, Rafa is not out of form, he looked very good in his previous matches to me, Rafa is still Rafa. Rafa could have won that match but Zeballos was the one who raised his game and stunned Rafa with the big shots.

  • Tom Michael · February 13, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    Dan, I may have predicted that Simon would have predicted gotten to 2 slam semis, but you predicted that Rafa would not have a career slam or double digits. And I predicted both for Rafa. So you are silly for attacking my predictions when you predicted nothing of significance. Except Fed is Dead since 2008. Where did that get you?

  • Dan Markowitz · February 13, 2013 at 10:37 pm


    I underestimated Nadal and you were right in thinking highly of him. I was the guy who picked Djokovic to win 12 slams after he won his first and I still like that prediction. I also touted Soderling before he had his breakthrough.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 14, 2013 at 10:08 am

    I don’t think that prediction of Simon is that far off by Tom, depends on when he made it of course. But he’s made a slam QF, and 4th rd in all the others majors. Won ten titles in singles and reached #6 in the rankings. I don’t know when you first got the idea that Simon would become as good as he did, but anyone who called Simon early must really know their tennis.

  • Dan markowitz · February 14, 2013 at 11:46 am

    I believe Tom made his bold Simon prediction after his breakthrough summer. And the difference between a Slam semis and a quarter or 4th Round showing is huge. Huge. You reach a quarters as a lower ranked player and maybe you’ve beaten one top player. To reach a semis in a Slam, you usually have to knock off 2 or 3 top players and that’s been beyond Simon’s scope.

    Also, yes Nadal won his Career Slam and more than 10 slams, but how many of you out there think he’s done so without dabbling with steroids. I, for one, think Nadal has been amply helped by the miracle drugs.

  • Tom Michael · February 14, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    I knew Simon was a very good player in January, 2008. I heard of him but saw for the first time in a 3rd round match against Rafa in the 2008 Australian. I thought he was a top 15 player easily in the making. And with a good draw, could make 2 slam semis. His playing level is exceptional and would beat the greats of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Tsonga is the best French player, making a slam final and few semis. Gasquet and Monfils has made one semi. Simon has made quarters in Australia in 2009. He is not far off from these guys. France has much depth. I last heard they may have more players in the top 100 than Spain.

  • Tom Michael · February 14, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    I don’t think Nadal has dabbled. If he has, so has others in the top 5.

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 14, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    50-50 on that one. Some days I think yes other days I think so but unknowingly. And if he is he is not the only top player either. Nadal is a good person, normal, humble, he’s not overly arrogant like Armstrong.

  • Steve · February 17, 2013 at 7:40 am

    Just read that the knee is still bothering Nadal during the Sao Paulo semis. He said it hurt more as the week progressed. As a fan I don’t want to see Rafa unnecessarily continue while injured even if he loses his “protected” ranking and we fans have to wait longer for his return.

    “When my knee hurts, I cannot move well and when I cannot move well, I cannot hit the ball well.”

  • Scoop Malinowski · February 17, 2013 at 9:42 am

    His movement does look compromised. But I doubt we will see Rafa retire or take off another 6 mths. The fact he is struggling with players like Alund is not an encouraging sign for Rafa. Should be a good final with Nalb.



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