20 July 2024

In the feverish buildup to his final appearance at the Madrid Open, Rafael Nadal made himself abundantly clear. It was not too long ago that he was unsure if he would ever return to the court at all and so, with his lingering physical limitations, he came to Madrid with the intention of saying goodbye to his home crowd, not to win. But this is a 22-time grand slam champion whose career has been defined by his ability to win tennis matches on clay courts regardless of age, physical shape or environment. Of course he was not going to leave without a desperate fight

Barely a week after he was dismantled by the very same opponent, Nadal returned to the fourth round here with an excellent performance, defeating Alex de Minaur, the 10th seed, 7-6 (6), 6-3 after more than two hours

“I have had many difficult months, not on a personal level but on a professional level,” he said. “I was always waking up with the hope of experiencing an afternoon like this again. Thank you all so much for making me feel this. I fail, but [the public] never fails, I can only say thank you.”

Nadal’s 6-1, 6-0 win over Darwin Blanch, a 16-year-old wildcard ranked No 1,028, had set up a second round match of considerable significance. Last week in Barcelona, the 37-year-old was ground down 7-5, 6-1 by his Australian opponent. This was the perfect opportunity to measure his progress, if any, with another week of practice under his belt.

 

In a vibrating Estadio Manolo Santana soundtracked by chants of “Si, se puede!” and “Viva Rafa!” and collective disgust whenever a point evaded Nadal, a topsy-turvy first set followed. He started off playing bold, attacking tennis but the home favourite lost his way from 2-0 up and found himself down a break at 3-4

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