January 21, 2017
Rafael Nadal dug deep to win an extraordinary war of attrition against Alexander “Sascha” Zverev, the 19-year old German described by Rafa himself as ‘the future of tennis.’
The entire match revolved around a 37-shot rally in the fifth game of the fifth set. The crowd gasped and murmured in disbelief, even as the brutal exchanges continued, but one body had to give way.
It was Zverev’s. He was hit by cramp in the immediate aftermath, as the crowd continued to go wild. Although the teeenager recovered to some extent a couple of games later, Nadal had already seized control of the final set and wouldn’t let go.
The painful irony for Zverev was that he had led 40-15 in that key fifth game – and needn’t have allowed it to descend into such a painful slug-fest.
Sascha was also two sets to one ahead, before taking his eye off the ball in the fourth. Rafa was soon a break up at 4-2; but the seventh game was delicately poised at 30-30 when the Spaniard came up with the shot of the match.
He leapt high into the air and turned his back on the net to flick an incredible backhand smash for a crucial winner. Nadal jumped again and punped the air with his fist as the Aussie crowd went crazy, scacely believing that the great man was back in such style.
Rafa hit hard to break at the beginning of the fifth; but Zverev struck back to level at 2-2. Then that decisive, marathon point, the cramping of the younger body, and the inevitable end.
Nadal, speaking straight after his 4-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 victory, had his own take on his opponent’s deteriorating condition. The 30-year-old observed: ‘Sometimes when you get the cramps it is because you are tired – but sometimes because of nerves too. You need to be focused.’
That’s exactly what Nadal was in the final set. He added: ‘I lost the last couple of times in the fifth so I said “today is the day.”‘
Nadal is almost back to his very best, even if he still lacks a fraction of his previous power, due to his changing physique in recent years. It is amazing how Federer and Nadal have both struck such a rich streak of form in the same tournament, after years of injury or enticing flashes of former perfection.
Could they both be major forces at Wimbledon 2017, and evoke memories of a famous battle in the dark, many moons ago? No one dared to think it possible – but it is.
Mental and physical toughness are still necessary to complete their comebacks and bring out the very best of their exceptional talent once more. If they didn’t both have it, the next generation would have taken over already.
How did Rafa beat Zverev? ‘Fighting. And running a lot,’ he replied. Everybody knows how good Zverev is. He is the future of our sport and the present too. It was a very tough match for me. I wasn’t feeling well when he was taking so much of the court; but I felt a bit better in the third. He deserved the tie-break, though, he was serving big and he was more aggressive.
‘Then I fought for every point and it wasn’t an ideal end for him. He suffered a lot for two games, then he managed to move better again. But I’m so happy I managed to win in front of this fantastic crowd.’
Want to see the kings of our sport back to their best once more at Wimbledon 2017? Click here to book your dream seats.