Alexander Zverev might represent the future of men's tennis, but Rafael Nadal is the present. The 14-time Grand Slam champion defeated Zverev in three sets, 6-7(8), 6-0, 7-5, on Wednesday in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.
Zverev entered the fourth round having beaten 23rd-seeded Grigor Dimitrov and No. 16 Gilles Simon in his last two matches. The 18-year-old was particularly impressive against Simon, brushing the Frenchman aside in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2.
Nadal knew Zverev presented a difficult challenge.
"[Zverev's] a clear possible future No. 1," he said following his third-round win over Fernando Verdasco, per the tournament's website. "He's an amazing player. He has all the shots. It's going to be a very tough match tomorrow for me, and I have to be ready to fight, to suffer, and to try to play aggressive. That's what I'm going to try."
It quickly became apparent those words weren't mere hyperbole. Zverev was well-equipped to handle Nadal, flashing impressive mobility on the baseline and a thunderous backhand that allowed him to absorb Nadal's topspin-heavy forehand.
Zverev took the first set following a 10-8 tiebreaker, staving off two set points from Nadal in the process.
All the more impressive, he was at times facing off with two opponents, taking issue with the placement of the Spidercam that was capturing the action above the court. The young German grew perturbed after double-faulting on serve and had a discussion with the chair umpire.
Tennis writer Carole Bouchard figured the problem won't go away for Zverev anytime soon:
The chair umpire was a busy man in the first set, also warning Nadal for his use of language on the court, per BT Sport's David Law:
Between the back-and-forth rallies and Nadal's and Zverev's combined histrionics, the first set offered fans a little bit of everything. The second set was a different story.
As quickly as Zverev captivated the Indian Wells crowd, he fell back to earth with twice the speed. Suddenly, the poise he had shown in the first set disappeared. He won a mere nine points in the second set, barely more than the number of unforced errors he committed (eight). Nadal needed just 26 minutes to send the match to a decisive third set.
Sasa Ozmo of Serbian broadcaster B92 was disappointed to see the wheels come off for Zverev in such swift fashion:
And yet, the tables turned once again in the final frame. Zverev used the break between sets to regroup and rediscover his confidence.
Since he was so often on the defensive, Nadal was unable to put much placement on his shots. That allowed Zverev to find a comfort zone on the baseline, and he started to dictate the pace of points with his overpowering groundstrokes.
However, Zverev's nerves overcame him. The closer he got to the end of the match, the more cautious he became. Ultimately, he let a 5-2 lead in the final set slip through his grasp.
The turning point came in the ninth game as Zverev was serving for the match. On match point, he dumped a simple forehand volley into the net. TennisTV provided a replay of the error:
Then, fighting off break point, a short forehand met the same fate. At that point, the tide of the match had irrevocably swung in Nadal's direction. Zverev offered little resistance as the Spaniard completed his comeback.
Tennis commentator Rob Koenig is worried what the defeat could do to Zverev's psyche:
Zverev looks to have a long, fruitful career on the horizon, but he learned the hard way Wednesday that he can't afford to gift an opponent, especially one as good as Nadal, a way back into a match. As he analyzes what went right and what went wrong in this match, he should become a better player.
Although it's far too early to call Zverev a Grand Slam contender, he might make some noise this summer at Roland Garros and the All England Club.
Nadal, meanwhile, will move on to the quarterfinals, where he'll meet either John Isner or Kei Nishikori. He's a combined 13-1 all-time against both players, so either matchup sets up well for him in the next round.
Having come back from the brink against Zverev, Nadal will likely feel even better about his chances of bringing home a title at Indian Wells.
"A great victory... I'm very happy about it," said Nadal after the match, per ATPWorldTour.com. "I am especially happy about the mentality on court, the spirit of fight during the whole match, believing that I can win a match during the whole time even in the tougher situations."
To his credit, Zverev didn't shy away from discussing his late-match collapse, per Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times:
"It was a great match," Zverev said, per ATPWorldTour.com. "Rafa did what he does best; he was fighting. He's known for that."