It was billed as the potential changing of the guard – Alexander Zverev, the highest-ranked teenager in the world, taking it to the supposed ‘old bull’ Rafael Nadal, the 14-time Grand Slam champion on his umpteenth return from injury.
For more than four hours on Saturday, the pair stood toe to toe, delivering on the pre-match hype to keep the waiting Rod Laver Arena night session crowd waiting in the wings.
The gangly Zverev – bidding to join his brother Mischa in the fourth round for the first time – knew no fear, flattening anything short and showing deceptive speed for his 198cm frame to steal a two-sets-to-one lead.
Time and again, Nadal was forced to dig his way out of trouble, circling and waiting for his moment.
Patience and endurance proved the 30-year-old Spaniard’s greatest virtue.
He cast aside doubts about his fitness and recent staying ability in Grand Slam five-setters to turn the tides on the battle-weary German 4-6 6-3 6-7(5) 6-3 6-2.
It broke an unwelcome trend which had crept into Nadal’s major campaigns in recent years.
He had lost his past three five-setters, having let a break in the deciding set slip in his past two.
“Is obvious that (this) is an important result for me. I lost the last couple of ones, matches in the fifth. So is important for me to win a match like this, (while) losing two sets to one. Very happy,” Nadal said.
Zverev had let a match point go begging in a defeat to Nadal in the pair’s only prior encounter, at Indian Wells last season.
But the fast-improving teenager has made big inroads in the 10 months since, and was relaxed from the outset on Saturday.
After sneaking the third set tie-break with a pummeling backhand crosscourt, a momentary concentration lapse to drop his opening service game in the fourth set would ultimately prove the turning point.
Nadal reached set point off Zverev’s 60th unforced error and levelled the match at two sets apiece with an ace.
He stole the early ascendency in the deciding set with a break of serve against an increasingly error-prone Zverev, only to see the German up his aggression to level at 2-2 when Nadal rolled a forehand long.
Anyone who’d dared write off the ‘old bull’ when he failed to consolidate the break of serve in the fifth would have been a fool.
No sooner had the German done the hard yards to draw level than his weary body began to fail him, with cramps taking hold midway through the set.
Nadal knew not to release the stranglehold.
“For sure it’s not the ideal finish for him, but I see that he suffered a lot in two games but then he started to move better again,” Nadal said.
“Sometimes when you get cramps you’re tired because of the nerves. It’s happened a lot of times to me in my career.”
Sealing the result after four hours and six minutes, an elated Nadal was quick to pay tribute to his wounded opponent in the aftermath.
“I think everybody knows how good Alexander is. He’s the future of our sport and the present too,” Nadal said.
“He is able to produce great shots. He's already one of the best players of the world and can be even better. He can be fighting for the most important things. So I think he will do it.”
The fast-rising teenager may well be knocking on the door, but the ‘old bull’ is not ready to be put out to pasture yet.