After the second-round loss to Lukas Rosol in five sets at Wimbledon 2012, world no. 2 Rafael Nadal was forced to stay away from the court for seven months, struggling with a left knee injury that threatened to end his career.
Unable to make a comeback at the beginning of the next season, Rafa hit the court again in Vina del Mar, opting to embrace the South American Golden Swing and hoping to regain form and momentum as soon as possible. The Spaniard took down Federico Delbonis, Daniel Gimeno-Traver and Jeremy Chardy to advance into the final, rattling off 15 straight wins on clay, including Rome and Roland Garros from the previous spring.
World no. 73 Horacio Zeballos stood between Rafa and the title, with the Argentine advancing into the second and so far the last ATP singles final in a career. Scoring only three ATP wins overall in 2012, Horacio found the rhythm in the closing stages with back-to-back titles at clay Challengers, finishing in the top-100 and gathering boost ahead of 2013 that saw him claiming that lone ATP crown following a stunning 6-7, 7-6 6-4 triumph over the 11-time Major champion!
Rafa was the first top-10 victim in Zeballos' career, with the Argentine becoming the first left-hander who defeated Nadal on clay on the ATP tour. The encounter lasted for two hours and 47 minutes and Horacio grabbed four points more than the Roland Garros champion, firing 50 winners and controlling the number of unforced errors to cross the finish line first and steal the title ahead of the Spaniard.
Nothing could separate them in the shortest and most extended rallies, with the Argentine taking a slim advantage in the mid-range exchanges that secured the title for him, staying calm in the closing stages of the second set (was two points away from the defeat twice) and prevailing in the decider to notch a career-best victory.
Zeballos held in the opening game with a service winner, wasting two break chances in the second game and the opportunity to move in front. Both players served well in the rest of the set to reach the tie break that the Spaniard claimed 7-2 with a backhand return winner.
Zeballos fended off two break chances in the fourth game of the second set, landing a backhand down the line winner to level the score at 4-4 and stay in contention. At 30-30 in the tenth game, Horacio stayed focused to bring another game home, holding at love with a forehand winner at 5-6 to secure the tie break, a must-win one for him.
Rafa sprayed a backhand error in the eighth point to send the rival 5-3 in front, wasting two set points at 6-4 before clinching another mini-break with a return winner to gain a 7-6 advantage, closing the set in the next point with a service winner to force a decider.
There, Rafa broke at love in the first game, netting an easy volley a few minutes later to hand the break to Horacio in what had been one of the crucial moments of the entire clash. Serving at 3-4, Nadal fended off a break chance with an incredible volley, staying on the positive side of the scoreboard and shifting the pressure to the other side of the court.
Nonetheless, Horacio was ready to deal with it, delivering one good hold after another and stealing Nadal's serve at love in game ten to celebrate the title in style and leave Rafa empty-handed.