VINA DEL MAR, Chile (AP) — A loss in the final against little-known Argentine Horacio Zeballos was not the way Rafael Nadal wanted to end his comeback tournament after seven months off with an inflamed left knee.
Nadal had warned that it might take weeks — maybe several months — for him to reach his old form, which brought him 11 Grand Slam titles, and Sunday's performance proved that.
The former No. 1 lost 7-6 (2), 6-7 (4) 6-4 on Sunday to the unheralded Zeballos in the VTR Open final in Chile. Zeballos had never won an ATP singles title while Nadal has won 50 — 36 of them on clay.
Nadal's disappointment was compounded by a defeat in the doubles final, soon after the singles, as he and Juan Monaco were beaten 6-2, 6-4 by the Italian pair Paolo Lorenzi and Potito Starace.
Still, Nadal tried to sound positive about his overall performances in the tournament — his first since last year's Wimbledon.
"Everything was very positive," Nadal said. "It's true I wanted to win the final, and it's true I didn't play my best match this afternoon. There are a lot of things that show I'm not perfect yet."
"I hope this is the beginning of a lot of tournaments and a lot of good results for me."
Nadal said just being able to play again was some reward.
"It was a week when we didn't know how the body would respond, the knee," he said. "At least we have seen we can compete up to a certain level. It's true I have had good days and bad days that impact on my play."
It was only the fifth time in 41 singles final on clay that Nadal had lost.
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."
Zeballos said the two chatted briefly, and Nadal offered some advice.
"He told me: 'Enjoy this title, this is your first so just enjoy it.'"
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.
The loss on Sunday could add extra pressure, adding weight to the argument that this May at Roland Garros will be too soon for him to challenge the likes of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Nadal had not dropped a set all week until this loss. 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 its clear if the non-surgical treatment has been effective.
The first set went to a tiebreak without a service break. Zeballos kept Nadal off balance with his serve and hit the corners, but the Spaniard held on to win the tiebreak.
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 immediately 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. The two had played in the 2010 French Open with Nadal winning 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.
The loss ended a 15-match winning string for Nadal in singles on clay.
"The purely tennis aspect isn't the most important thing right now," Nadal said. "The most important was being out there again in front of fans with fans being so supportive."
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