Rafael Nadal delivers a timely reminder of his calibre to delight home crowd

Rafael Nadal delivers a timely reminder of his calibre to delight home crowd

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.

While his movement, durability and serve may be limited, his supreme mentality is unchanged. Nadal refused to bow his head and he held on long enough until he played himself into form. After playing clear, authoritative tennis to reach 6-2 in the tiebreak, the Spaniard double faulted on set point and was dragged back to 6-6. Under immense pressure, Nadal cranked out an incredible cross-court backhand winner and he celebrated the set by pumping his fist.

Having secured the opening set, Nadal broke early and ran away with the match, pinning De Minaur into his backhand corner and dictating with his forehand as his momentum grew with every stroke.

The victory marks Nadal’s first win over a top-30 player since November 2022 and it was about as positive an outcome as he could have hoped for. Not only did he elevate his level in the face of real adversity, but his body held up after two hours in a match of high intensity against a top player.

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“There is room for improvement, but, hey: day by day,” said Nadal. “For me, it means a lot, apart from the victory, being able to play the entire game, no? Last week I couldn’t do it; I was able to play a set. Today I managed to play for more than two hours. And I’m happy to finish with a victory that allows me to play once again on this tremendous court.”

As Nadal’s final appearance in Madrid extends into a second week, on Monday he will face Pedro Cachín of Argentina, who defeated Frances Tiafoe, the American 20th seed, 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-4.