Rafa battles into last 16
Nadal twice came from a set down to win 4-6 6-3 6-7(5) 6-3 6-2 after a four-hour battle on Rod Laver Arena.
“I won by fighting and running a lot. I think everybody knows how good Alexander is,” said Nadal. “He’s the future of our sport and the present too.
“It’s been a very tough match for me. I didn’t start playing my best and I was not feeling very well because I was losing too much court. When I felt I was feeling better I had more time to control from the baseline. It was a close one but he deserved to play a little more aggressive than me. I had to fight for every point.”
Zverev had won his last three matches against Top 10 opponents, and he raced out of the blocks, breaking in the opening game and never relinquishing his advantage to take the opening set against the 2009 champion.
Nadal, who has not won a hard court title since January 2014, responded in the second set, breaking for a 4-1 lead as a break of serve apiece saw the pair split the opening two sets.
In their only previous meeting, in Indian Wells last year, Nadal was seconds from defeat as Zverev closed in on the net on match point, but a miscued forehand volley saw Nadal live to fight on, and he went on to win the match 6-7(8) 6-0 7-5.
With the match finely poised in the third set tiebreak, there were echoes of that match as Zverev missed two volleys, but it did not prove costly as the German once again forged ahead with a fizzing backhand crosscourt winner.
The 2014 boys’ champion was left to his thoughts as Nadal disappeared down the tunnel for a comfort break after forcing the match to a deciding set. A set away from the biggest win of his career, the German showed signs of nerves as a wayward forehand gifted Nadal a break in the opening game.
But perhaps doubt began to creep into Nadal’s mind. The nine-time French Open champion had not won a five set match in two years and had lost his last three matches that had gone the distance – all against lower-ranked opponents (Lucas Pouille, 2016 US Open; Fernando Verdasco, 2016 Australian Open; Fabio Fognini, 2015 US Open).
A 15th ace of the match sealed a love service game for Zverev to help settle the nerves, before breaking to get back on level terms. But after a gruelling 37-shot rally, cramp began to set in and Zverev trudged back to the chair after relinquishing the break straight back.
With his opponent fading, the 14-time Grand Slam champion turned the screw, and in the end 74 unforced errors from Zverev proved his undoing as Nadal wrapped up the victory after four hours and six minutes.
“Being realistic every match is so difficult,” said Nadal, who will meet Gael Monfils in the fourth round. “Today was a big battle and I am so happy to be through. I was losing a couple of times in the fifth set.
“I said to myself, today is the day, with this fantastic crowd, everything is less difficult. It was a very special day for me.”
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