- Nadal wins 4-6 6-3 6-7 6-3 6-2
- Zverev suffered from cramps in fifth set
- Nadal bidding for first major since 2014
Melbourne (CNN)Rafael Nadal thought he would be tested by Alexander Zverev at the Australian Open.
He was right -- but the 14-time grand slam winner overcame his younger, bigger-hitting foe in five sets Saturday to maintain his chances of claiming a first major since 2014 at Roland Garros.
Matching, or perhaps exceeding, the drama of Denis Istomin's stunning upset of six-time tournament champion Novak Djokovic on Thursday, the Spaniard and 6-foot-6 German slugged it out before Nadal prevailed 4-6 6-3 6-7 (5-7) 6-3 6-2 in four hours, six minutes on Rod Laver Arena.
"For the confidence, for a lot of things, (it's) very important to win these kinds of matches," Nadal told reporters. "I worked a lot during all December to have the chances to compete well in these kinds of moments.
"Even if I started the match with some nerves, I think I was able to come back, no?"
He was indeed although when Zverev claimed the third set -- he capped the set with a devastating two-handed backhand -- it appeared as if the brash 19-year-old was on his way to collecting a fourth straight victory over a top-10 rival. But Nadal broke early in the fourth to start his comeback.
Nadal had lost his last three fifth sets and relinquished break leads in his last two to Lucas Pouille and Fernando Verdasco in 2016.
And preying on those Nadal nerves -- frequently clubbing that backhand -- the 24th-ranked Zverev reversed a 2-0 deficit to level the fifth.
He proceeded to win the longest rally of the match -- an exhausting 37 shots -- at 2-2, deuce, but that point tipped the balance in the 30-year-old's favor. Zverev -- who held a match point when he lost to Nadal last year in Indian Wells -- began cramping in his legs and didn't win another game.
"I still had game points to go up 3-2," Zverev told reporters. "I lost my service game I think because of that a little bit."
Nadal clinched the contest by forcing an forehand error, then stood on the baseline and roared, "Come on."
"I lost the last couple of ones, matches in the fifth, so it's important for me to win a match like this, losing two sets to one," said Nadal. "Very happy."
'Going to be awesome'
Conchita Martinez, Spain's Davis Cup captain, added to CNN: "I think for his mental state it's going to be awesome. It's going to be really good for his confidence.
"He's trained really hard, so he's done his work. He's confident about that so, I don't want to say after this he's going to be dangerous -- he is dangerous any way. We'll see how he recovers.
"Physically I see him strong, so I think he's in good shape."
One more win for Nadal, against flamboyant Frenchman Gael Monfils on Monday, and he'll land in a first grand slam quarterfinal since the 2015 French Open. Nadal leads Monfils in their duels 12-2 so he'll be favored.
With nemesis Djokovic having made an early departure, there may be a golden opportunity for Nadal to go even further.
His main coach, his uncle Toni, was being cautious, however.
"If this was an important win or not, I don't know," he told CNN. "I'll tell you when the tournament is over."