Vina Del Mar (Chile): Rafael Nadal suffered a shock 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-4 loss to Argentina`s Horacio Zeballos in Sunday`s final of the VTR Open, the Spaniard`s comeback tournament after seven months out with a torn tendon in his left knee.
Nadal was an overwhelming favorite, shooting for this 37th singles title on clay. Zeballos won his first singles title on any surface and looked every bit the equal of the seven-time French Open champion.
It was only the fifth singles final Nadal has lost on clay to go with 36 victories. Zeballos matched Nadal shot-for-shot with no service breaks until the third set, dropping to his back on the red clay surface after winning.
"This is the game of my life," Zeballos said. "Playing against the best player of all-time, or one of the best in the history of tennis. It`s a dream, unforgettable. I will never forget this moment."
Nadal spoke briefly after the match, and then prepared to play the doubles final with partner Juan Monaco against the Italian pair of Paolo Lorenzi and Potito Starace.
"It has been one of the most beautiful weeks lately for me after being unable to experience something like this for long time," Nadal said. "The fact I am here has been a triumph."
Nadal had most of the support, with fans waving Spanish flags and some wearing t-shirts saying "Vamos Rafa" and "Viva Espana."
The Spaniard has been treated like a hometown boy after arriving in Chile to play his first tournament. Nadal will continue his comeback this week in the Brazil Open in Sao Paulo, and later this month plays again on clay in Acapulo, Mexico all aimed at getting him ready for a run at this eighth French Open title.
Nadal had not dropped a set all week until this loss. And he has been warning the comeback might be slow, needing to regain his speed and match fitness. He has said the knee still hurts, and has warned it might be several months before it`s clear if the non-surgical treatment has been effective.
The first set went to a tie-break without a service break. Zeballos kept Nadal off balance with his serve and hit the corners, but the Spaniard held on to win the tie-break.
Zeballos would not be denied. He out-played Nadal in the second set, lashing surprise winners past the Spaniard to take the tiebreaker 8-6. As in the first set, there were no service breaks. After winning the set, Zeballos raised both hands at the net and stared directly at Nadal.
Zeballos was broken in the first game in the final set, but broke back in the next game and then took the match, breaking Nadal again in the 10th game.
Nadal`s last match before this tournament was a loss last year in the second round of Wimbledon to little-known Czech player Lukas Rosol.
This one was similarly surprising. They had met in the 2010 French Open with Nadal winning 6-2 6-2 6-3.
Nadal has USD 50 million in tour earnings, and Zeballos has won only USD 1.3 million and indication of the gulf between them.
The loss ended a 15-match winning string for Nadal in singles on clay.