Tennis: Rafael Nadal's gritty win shows he is still a man for the ages

(From left) Rafael Nadal, a grand champion who won because he found enough of his old warrior self, and Alexander Zverev, the game's brightest new talent who showed us some of his best self.
(From left) Rafael Nadal, a grand champion who won because he found enough of his old warrior self, and Alexander Zverev, the game's brightest new talent who showed us some of his best self. PHOTOS: EPA, REUTERS

MELBOURNE - By the time the match was done the sun had bid farewell, the lights were shining in Rod Laver Arena and the stars were out. One was 19, the other 30. Both wore brightly coloured sneakers, ran for four hours and six minutes and fought with enough spirit to impress any watching pugilist. One man was Alexander Zverev, the game's brightest new talent who showed us some of his best self; the other was Rafael Nadal, a grand champion who won 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 6-2 because he found enough of his old warrior self.

The match had most of what we wish from sport - intensity, uncertainty, durability. At the final changeover the song Hit Me With Your Best Shot was playing but they had already produced a succession of them. Nadal, world No. 9, lashed inside-out forehands by the brilliant dozen and Zverev, No. 24, produced geometrically- exact backhands that went cross-court by the score. Together they collected 101 winners, saved 16 break points and ventured to the net 58 times.

Towels were later tossed to fans but never thrown onto the court during battle. When Nadal broke in the fifth set, Zverev simply broke back. Whereupon they played a 37-shot rally, the longest in the match. Nadal bent over and wiped his body. Zverev flexed his leg which had begun to cramp. Together they sweated and gave tennis a shine.

"Even now," said Zverev later, "I'm disappointed, but I know that this was a great match. 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, so..."

Nadal returned the compliment, saying of the 1.98m German: "He's able to produce great shots. He's already one of the best players in the world. He can be even better."

He may well be, but right now it's a greying twosome from the past who have stated they are not yet ready to pick up their pension cheques. Seven days after the Open commenced, the Roger and Rafa Show - with supporting acts by Stan Wawrinka, 31, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 31 and Andreas Seppi, 32 - is still playing at these premises and the crowds are not complaining. Nostalgia never goes out of fashion.

Federer, 35, plays Kei Nishikori, 27, today in the fourth round. The Nadal-Zverev encounter yesterday was only a third-round skirmish and yet inter-generational bouts provide some of the finest drama in sport and also some of its most poignant moments: A young player trying to forge a career versus an older one trying to resurrect one. One trying to go up fast, the other trying to delay his way down.

Zverev wore jewellery to the court, Nadal was dressed in his snarl. "Vamos," said one man; "come on," said the other. Fists clenched and spectators hollered. They admired the kid but they were partial to the legend. Even when the German was limping and attended to by a trainer in the fifth set, fans still shouted "Let's go, Rafa". Zverev's time, they know, will come, but it is the Spaniard's time they do not want to be over.

In the first set Nadal needed help because Zverev, who is built like a spindle but threads powerful winners, was heaping indignities on a man 11 years his senior. He drop-shotted his elder and then lobbed him, broke him in the first game and then held serve six consecutive times. His response under pressure at 5-4, 30-all was a 211kmh serve.

Perhaps, for fleeting seconds, when both men looked across the net they might have envied what they saw in each other: Brilliance and youth respectively. Zverev must dream of Nadal's CV, which includes at least two victories at every Slam except this Open; and Rafa must envy Zverev, who is not so familiar with pain yet, and has no real concept of time. At 19, a sporting life is only before him.

Having lost the first set, Nadal didn't just arrange his water bottles carefully but tidied up his game as well. More consistent returns, sharper serves and a position closer to the baseline. But momentum was as hard to hold on to as a wind. The Spaniard won the second set, yet Zverev grabbed the third, only for Nadal to go up 3-0 in the fourth.

Sport is ostensibly about lifting yourself, one athlete rising above himself and also above the other man. This ability to lift requires grit and faith, and this is what both men did beautifully yesterday and this is why this match turned into a classic. Zverev rose to every physical challenge Nadal threw and Nadal continues to rise and meet whatever life hurls at him. And in doing so he reminds us of a valuable lesson.

Last week it was constantly mentioned that Nick Kyrgios has immense talent but that he wastes that talent. By "talent," people tend to mean hand-eye coordination or racket skills, but in truth it's a limited definition. Nadal's talent is that he takes every shot seriously, every point, every practice session. His talent is to rally on aching knees. His talent is to pick at his shorts and then to run till he cannot any more. His talent, you see, is to never waste this talent.