Australian Open 2017: Rampant Rafael Nadal beats Sascha Zverev, as opportunity knocks

Rafael Nadal is through to the last 16 at the Australian Open in Melbourne after beating Sascha Zverev in five sets

As hard to believe as it is, Rafael Nadal has not won a Grand Slam in more than two and a half years, nor got beyond an Australian Open final in over three years, nor made it beyond the last 16 at a Major in his last five appearances.

In Melbourne 12 months ago, though, he began what was to become an unexpectedly lean year with his first opening-round loss in Australia. For the mighty Spaniard with 14 Grand Slam titles and more than 800 match-wins to his name was hit once again by injury during the French Open, returned for a brave Olympic campaign in Rio, but would play just four matches after the US Open.

This year’s Australian Open also promised to make Nadal’s return an uphill challenge. For a start, ranked No9, he would have to face higher-ranked men by the fourth round. Second, he was dropped into the half of defending champion Novak Djokovic—the man who had beaten him in their last seven matches dating back to that Roland Garros victory to Nadal in 2014.

Throw into the mix a possible quarter-final against No3 seed Milos Raonic, winner in two of their last three matches—including Brisbane this year and here was a steep mountain to climb.

But rearing up in Nadal’s path before that was a young player tipped by many—including Nadal—for the very top, Alexander Zverev. Still only 19, the tall, rangy power player from Germany had already made waves last year. He beat Roger Federer on Halle’s grass, then Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka to win his first title in St Petersburg, Marin Cilic in Shanghai, and Federer again in this year’s Hopman Cup.

Most pertinently, the charismatic teenager who speaks German, Russian and English with equal assurance, had worked a match-point against Nadal in Indian Wells in their only previous meeting. And although the former junior No1 was this year playing in only his second main draw in Melbourne, he won the junior title in 2014.

As the youngest top-20 debutant since Djokovic in 2006, Zverev has maturity beyond his years, and taken alongside Nadal’s patchy record in recent months, many believed this tussle could be a classic. They were right. It would be a four-hour, see-sawing, compelling drama: on one side 2009 champion Nadal; on the other a champion-in-waiting, Zverev.

And it was the younger man who came out of the blocks faster, breaking in the very first game to convert an early break point with a swinging, angled backhand followed by a lunging drop winner. The spectacle continued on the German’s side: Now a winning lob, then a clutch of pounding forehand winners, plus a crowd-pleasing high volley winner, on his way to a stunning first set, 6-4.

But Australia this year was already seeing something of its old former champion. Time away for physical rehab, intense training, and the input of former Grand Slam champion and old friend, Carlos Moya, seemed to have fine-tuned a lean, fast and confident Nadal, who dismissed decent early Melbourne opposition with ease.

So the frown deepened on Nadal’s game-face as he upped the aggression in the second set. Come the fourth game, he pressed Zverev into a scattering of errors—on serve and backhand—and got the break. It was all he needed: Nadal served out the set to love, 6-3.

That pressure on Zverev had produced 14 unforced errors to just three from Nadal, but that did not impair the composure and confidence of this star in the making. A quick comfort break, and he was back and ready for the fight.

He survived an almost intolerable battering from Nadal in a seven-minute third game, and the match remained on serve, and far too close to call. With the sun slipping lower, difficult shadows stretched across the Rod Laver Arena, but even though the yellow balls were firing out of sun and into shade, the standard of tennis remained stunning, bold and gripping. With not a break point to either man and the clock almost at two and a half hours, they headed to a tie-break.

It took a blistering string of backhands from Zverev to draw a vital Nadal error, and that one slip allowed the teenager to serve out the 66-minute set, 7-6(5). Not surprisingly, he could not resist a Nadal-like fist pump—and the crowd rose as one.

But again, Nadal came back fighting. He won the first seven points of the fourth set, then from deuce, opened up the court to race in for a smash winner, 2-0.

Zverev got on the board at 3-1, but Nadal’s serve and penetrating one-two finish increasingly pinned the teenager to the baseline. The Spaniard faced break point, but a couple of lunging serves got him out of trouble. And with seemingly bottomless wells of energy, he punished Zverev through the longest rally thus far, backed some increasingly impressive serving with top-quality volleying, and served out the set with an ace, 6-3.

Nadal was steadily negating his opponent’s fire-power, draining Zverev’s legs and also defusing the pace. He broke in the opening game of the decider, and again pounded his way to a 2-0 lead: He had a spring in his step, while Zverev’s body began to sag.

Yet the teenager resisted once more, converting the last of three break chances, 2-2. But Nadal was running him ragged, receiving serve perhaps four metres behind the baseline with looping short returns to draw the errors. Eventually, a murderous 10-minute game of five deuces and a 37-stroke rally, brought another Nadal break, and Zverev hobbled to his chair as cramp did its worst.

The crowd cheered the teenager on, but Nadal was brutal in the face of brave resistance and countless deuces. He broke again, and served out the win, 6-2.

This was Nadal’s first five-set Grand Slam win in his last four, and he was quick to acknowledged the importance of that.

“It’s obviously an important result for me to win a match like this, having been down two sets to one. I’m very happy.

“For the confidence, for lot of things, it is very important to win these kinds of matches. I worked a lot during all of December to have the chance to compete well in these kinds of moments.

“In terms of physical performance, I felt great, ready to run for every ball. In terms of level of tennis, I think I finished the match playing much better than how I started.”

The challenges continue to come thick and fast for Nadal: Next is No6 seed Gael Monfils, who has dropped only one set in reaching the last 16 but has not beaten Nadal since Doha 2012.

Beyond that remains Raonic, who beat Gilles Simon, 6-2, 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-3. The Canadian has next to beat No13 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who overcame David Ferrer, 7-5, 6-7(6), 7-6(3), 6-4, and thus ensured the seedings held true in this half—except for one key name.

Denis Istomin, a qualifier ranked outside the top 100, caused the upset of the tournament by beating Djokovic to open the way for a new champion in Australia. That new champion could even be Istomin, who continued his run with a win over No30 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. More likely is one of the younger men who have begun to make their mark among the big boys: No11 David Goffin will take on No8 Dominic Thiem, and No15 Grigor Dimitrov continued his fine streak of form to beat Richard Gasquet for a tilt at Istomin.

But it is the oldest in the bottom half, and former champion, who has that old look about him. Nadal, particularly in this shape, needs little encouragement to push at an open door… and that is what Djokovic’s absence surely is.

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