Barcelona Open

Barcelona 2017: Nadal and Zeballos beat #NextGen challengers to lock horns after four years

Rafael Nadal will take on Horacio Zeballos in the semi-final of the Barcelona Open on Saturday afternoon

10-time French Open winner Rafael Nadal Photo: Marianne Bevis

The historic Barcelona ATP500 draw started out with an impressive 20 players in the ever-burgeoning over-30 group. And certainly, some of those over-30s made some headlines of their own through the opening rounds.

Albert Montanes, age 36, now calls Barcelona his home, and he won his first match there in 2001. This week, he won the last of his career there, too, after 18 years on the pro tour.

Feliciano Lopez, 35, set a new record at the tournament with his 17th appearance—19 years after his first. Back in 1998, the then 16-year-old lost his opener, and would not win his first there until 2003. Unlike most of his compatriots, Lopez would always find clay a tough ask, being a big serve-and-volley player, but he remained constantly faithful to the Club of his childhood:

“There are not many tournaments that are played in a club like this. And in my case, it is even more special because I was brought up here,” he told ATPWorldtour.com.

“I came here when I was 13 and I feel a lot of love for the people at this club.”

It so happened that it would be Lopez who ended fellow Spaniard Montanes’ career and, as luck would have it, Lopez would in turn be beaten by another man with fond memories of Barcelona, the world No1 Andy Murray.

The top seed was only 15 when he left Scotland to train at the Sanchez-Casal Academy, where he practised this week after taking a wild card into the Barcelona tournament. He told ATPWorldTour.com

“I was here in Barcelona for two years and I loved it. It was the first time that I was away from my family home and even though it was hard, it was the first time I’d tasted independence. I would say that they were two of the best years of my life.”

Murray was 17 when he played that first match, ranked 397, at this very tournament, and although he subsequently returned only three times as his career took off through the next decade, he was now back after a five-year absence, and as he had done in all 10 previous matches, he ended Lopez’s chances.

Indeed, by the quarter-finals, 18 of the 20 over-30s had lost, but one of the two survivors was none other than nine-time former champion Rafael Nadal fresh from winning a record-making 10th Monte-Carlo title.

And it was fair to say that the draw had opened up very favourably for the home hero on the court that is now named in his honour—not another seed in Nadal’s half.

The No3 seed was yet to face a seed after Kevin Anderson, ranked down at 66 and working his way back from repeated injury problems, beat the similarly struggling David Ferrer.

The other ‘mature’ man left in the same bottom half was the unseeded 32-year-old Horacio Zeballos, who had taken full advantage of the late withdrawal of Kei Nishikori to work his way past two seeds, Joao Sousa and Benoit Paire.

The 84-ranked Argentine could meet Nadal in the semis—an interesting challenge given that he beat Nadal in their last match four years ago on the clay of Vina del Mar. It should be added that the circumstances back then were very much in Zeballos’s favour.

Nadal was playing in his first event since knee injury sidelined him at Wimbledon the previous year, and the Spaniard would go on in 2013 to win 10 titles from 14 finals and reclaim the No1 ranking. Indeed, only one other man scored a win over Nadal in 46 matches before the grass season: Novak Djokovic in the Monte-Carlo final.

But before the over-30s could contemplate a rematch, each had to take on very different challengers, both 20 year olds, both rising names among the ‘Next Generation’ of players who would vie for a place at the very first #NextGenATP Finals in Milan.

The Race to Milan has brought to the fore the best 21-and-under players, and only eight will qualify. Both of the Barcelona quarter-finalists were jostling for two of those places.

It was in Barcelona last year that Russian Karen Khachanov made a big impression by coming through qualifying to beat Roberto Bautista Agut and reach the third round. By the end of the year, and with his first title in Chengdu, he had crashed into the top 100, and broke into the top 50 earlier this year despite some tough early losses.

But back in Barcelona, his power game and ever-improving fitness scored three impressive wins over fine clay players, including his first top-10 scalp over the in-form David Goffin. The run catapulted him into eighth spot in the Race to Milan and should he beat veteran clay-court expert Zeballos, he would rise to the top four.

But also demanding attention, and already commanding a top-four place for Milan in these early months, has been qualifier Hyeon Chung, ranked 94 but a former No51. His early progress was hampered by abdominal injury last season, but he returned to dominate the Challenger tour, most recently Maui at the start of 2017.

He, too, claimed big scalps this week in No12 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber and the man who leads the Race to Milan, Alexander Zverev, and was yet to face a tie-break let alone drop a set.

But he now faced the biggest challenge not just in Barcelona but in clay-court tennis, and Nadal was building some fine form. On his ‘own’ court, with the home crowd behind him, Nadal is as formidable a challenge as tennis can offer.

So would it be the old hands or the new faces who broke through to the semis? Well Chung put up an impressive fight in the early stages of his match against Nadal, breaking right at the start for 2-0, but Nadal levelled mid-set and after saving a break point in the 11th game, he took it to a tie-breaker—and unleashed his best tennis to grab the first six points. Nadal closed out the set, 7-6(1), and never looked back.

The Spaniard’s serving went up a notch—he dropped only four points on serve in the second set—and he made hay when he came to the net—12/12 at one stage—to break twice and take the win, 6-2.

It would be a similar story between the generations in the day’s closing match between Khachanov and Zeballos, with the two nip and tuck through the first set: on one side the big and powerful right-hander and on the other the one-handed leftie, who slotted winners, placed his kick serve with precision, and broke to take the first set, 6-4.

Khachanov, who took treatment on his foot early in the second set, did not then get on the board for five games, and Zeballos served out an impressive win, 6-1, having made 27 winners for just 12 errors.

The unseeded Argentine jumped and pumped in celebration and the Spanish crowd responded. How Barcelona will respond if he again challenges Nadal in tomorrow’s semi remains to be seen. The home hero is, after all, going for his 10th title in this his home tournament. And for now, the #NextGen must just watch from the sidelines.

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