Zverev might have beaten Nadal in Indian Wells last year if he had not missed a high forehand volley into the net when he held match point. On Saturday, the outcome was still very much in doubt with Zverev serving at 2-2 and deuce in the fifth set. He went on to win the longest rally of the match — a 37-shot spectacle — but when Nadal’s backhand hit the net, Zverev was already hobbling on the baseline with cramps.
Nadal won the next three points to break serve, and Zverev then walked as gingerly to his chair as a novice rider after a full day in the saddle. He would get his thighs rubbed by the trainers and carry on, and though he would never give up and never play the victim, Nadal never lost another game, either.
Zverev, still just 19, is a remarkable talent with precocious skills and court presence, one who has the potential to give Germany another Grand Slam singles champion in a hurry on the heels of Angelique Kerber.
“He’s already one of the best players of the world,” Nadal said. “He can be even better. He can be fighting for the most important things. So I think he will do it.”
“I love Zverev,” said Andy Roddick, the former No. 1 and fellow big server. “He might be the No. 1 prospect. He’s not even close to fully developed physically and is already serving 135 miles per hour and already has stroke production that reminds me a little of Juan Martín del Potro. I don’t think he’s as good as del Potro off both wings and doesn’t return nearly as well as him yet, but the potential is there to have del Potro-type skills but with a better overall body.”
Zverev, whose older brother, Mischa, is in the fourth round here, is also a marketing tool for the ATP Tour, one of the headliners of its NextGen campaign. But the next generation will have to wait a little longer for this generation to finish what it started.
It was a throwback 24 hours in Melbourne, with Federer playing vintage tennis against Tomas Berdych to reach the fourth round on Friday night and Nadal playing vintage tennis against Zverev to do the same.
“I’m disappointed, but I know that this was a great match,” Zverev said. “That was a great fight. There’s a lot of positives in this match. I think he’s probably one of the fittest tennis players in the history of the game.”
Nadal has played for much longer in Laver Arena than the 4 hours and 5 minutes that Saturday’s victory required. The final he lost here to Novak Djokovic in 2012 lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes and left both combatants so spent that they had to sit during the awards ceremony.
Nadal has had many more physical challenges since then, including the tendon injury in his left wrist that spoiled his promising 2016 season and forced him to withdraw in the midst of the French Open and wear a splint.
But the wrist certainly looks solid now; the legs and will, too.
“He’s looking for his forehand again, and I like that he’s using his forehand down the line more,” said Conchita Martínez, the Spanish Davis Cup captain. “To hit that shot you have to be well balanced and well set, and he’s doing that and he’s running good, getting to balls early, and being aggressive.”
Nadal was playing this way last spring before the injury, and he now has a big opportunity in the bottom half of the draw in Melbourne with Djokovic out of contention and nobody other than Nadal left in that half who has won a Grand Slam singles title.
But nothing makes Nadal arch an eyebrow — or snap his fingers — faster than trying to project too far ahead.
Wise to follow his lead and wait a little bit.